Up the Amazon
by Erik Olsen
You could smell the river from miles away. In fact, you could feel it. The feeling came up through the soles of your feet, a steady, earth-moving thrum from billions of gallons of water tumbling over the land and crashing into the Atlantic.
I might have experienced something close to a thrill if I was not in such a foul mood. I was, however, unprepared for the blight of Belém. The city of over 1 million lies at the mouth of the Amazon River, and is the launching point for almost all boat traffic upriver.
Belém is a dangerous place, as I was soon to find out. Even the name looks dangerous, barbed as it is with an accent so that it looks like a fishhook, or a bent nail, something that could easily put out an eye.
I despised Belém the second I got close to it. From the outskirts, the city looked like a sore. Half-naked children played on their knees in fetid puddles outside of crumbling homes.
This was a familiar sight in Latin America. I'd been traveling for thousands of miles and had grown somewhat used to the vile squalor of its urban fringes, particularly outside of megalopolises like Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires. But there was something especially bad about Belém, something that had to do with a vibe of seriously negative energy emanating from the place. It had more than the stench of poverty about it; it had the rank of danger. It was like that scene from Star Wars when, just before they enter the Mos Eisley cantina, Obi Wan tells Luke that he "will never see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
I had come to the end of a brain-numbing, butt-flattening, 32-hour bus-riding, hitchhiking marathon from Fortaleza - a sleepy little surf town on the northern lip of the lump of Brazil - where I'd spent three blissfully relaxing days sunning myself, body surfing and recovering from an insomniacal week at the Carnival celebration in Salvador. For five straight days and nights, I'd partied like a rock star, got punched in the face by an unknown assailant, caught a nasty cold, and was now nursing a headache that felt like my skull had been trampled by the Bulls at Pamplona.
Belém was an unfortunate must, a prerequisite pit stop where I hoped to find passage upriver. I didn't plan on staying long - perhaps a few days - but even this schedule was cut short when I was nearly mugged shortly after arriving in the city.
I was walking along Getúlio Vargas Avenue, one of the city's main drags, looking for a place to buy some breakfast. Four young hoodlums converged on me as I started to cross the street between two cars. Two of them slipped around the front of the car to block my way and the other two moved in behind, trapping me in between. My eye caught the flash of a blade and a hand gripped my shoulder. A bus roared past. Expressionless faces in the windows gazed down on me. My heart felt like a grenade exploding in my chest. One of the punks gestured for me to hand over my wallet. The self-preservation instinct kicked in, and I happily obliged, but just then two men intervened. One of them, a heavy-set man with a meaty neck and mirrored cop shades, positioned himself in between me and the guy with the knife. I saw the knife more clearly then, and realized that it was probably not meant to kill. It was too small for that. The blade was maybe an inch and a half long, but it served its purpose nicely of scaring the shit out of me. My would-be assailants scattered.
"We've been watching," the fat guy said in decent English. "They are bad. Lobos. We saw them following you."
"You must be careful," the other man said, who was thinner, taller, and bore a strong resemblance to Benicio del Toro. "You look like a tourist."
"I am a tourist."
"Well try not to look like one or you might get killed," he snapped.
"Right. OK. Thank you."
For the last year, I'd been living in Chile working as a journalist for an English-language magazine covering business. Economically, Chile is one of the most successful countries in all of Latin America, rich with copper deposits at a time when the russet metal is in high demand due to our insatiable love of electronics. But the Chileans are also remarkably entrepreneurial. In one of history’s more unfortunate cases of cause and effect, the country shed its socialist tendencies following the 1973 Chilean coup d'état that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Pinochet was no savior. His takeover and rule led to the death or disappearance of over 3,000 people. Many more thousands were tortured. All of this was significantly due to American support for the Pinochet regime, an effort led by then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who famously said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
But I covered business, not politics. And although there were still vestiges of the Pinochet ideology throughout Chile (some military schools still have their students goose step during recess), it had become a prosperous country and a model for many other Latin American countries that were still mired in poverty. But my time there was done, and the fact is, I didn't feel like going home yet. And so I worked up this scheme to travel back to Los Angeles overland (and sea) from Antarctica. I wanted to get as far south as I could, and then I'd travel up the coast of South America, through Central America and Mexico until I got home. The Amazon was on the way. That's what brought me here. Now I was in Belém, and in desperate need of a boat upriver.
But first, breakfast.
I hustled to the river's edge where a market called the Ver o Peso was just coming alive, where the meat men and the fishmongers were setting up their stalls for the morning rush. The name Ver o Peso means "See the Weight", and though it sounds like a Jenny Craig mantra, the term comes from the time when the market was a customs checkpoint for goods coming out of the Amazon, and Portuguese officials would "see the weight" to determine how much tax to levy. The buildings that fronted the river were broad-faced, two and three-story structures with high arched doorways, peeling facades, and wrought iron balconies. The place had the feel of a run-down New Orleans.
On the river's edge, muscular men hauled fish by the basketful out of wooden fishing boats. Nearby, on a long wooden plank, great sweating slabs of meat lay out in the open air beneath the morning sun. The slabs were swarming with flies. A stout old woman, her face tanned and weathered to the texture of rawhide, jabbed purposefully at a piece. The man at the stall grabbed it by the tip, making little effort to get rid of the flies, and hacked off a slice with a long, exceptionally sharp knife. He wrapped it in brown paper, dumped it unceremoniously into a plastic shopping bag and handed it to her. She paid him, took the bag and waddled off.
Snake-oil salesmen were spread across the market like vermin, hawking absurd concoctions of ointments and pills, animal parts and elixirs that promised to cure all ills and afflictions. It would all have been insanely funny if not for the obscenity of it: Dolphin's eyes for sexual prowess; the head of a dried snake called a panegosso to bring good luck to businessmen. Smoked dolphin vagina, dried monkey paws, turtle lard, powdered ungulate hooves and some cream-like extract of manatee whose purpose I didn't inquire about because by this time I was feeling sick to my stomach.
I strolled closer to the river. A light breeze blew over my skin, bringing a welcome respite from the unrelenting heat. I'd been sweating for weeks now. It all started in Buenos Aires, where I'd stopped for ten days on my way up from Antarctica and Patagonia, two places that now seemed several lifetimes away. Back then, when this whole trip first started, dealing with the weather was no big deal. The severe winds in Patagonia - known as williwaws - swept down from the hills and smacked you with such a sudden force that they sometimes seemed to peel the skin right off your face. But there was a certain charm to that. The williwaws snuck up on you, and you had to learn how to lean into them properly and turn your face away to minimize the pain. The weather up here by the equator was different. The air was heavier. This is a climatological fact: the air is heavier, or at least there is more of it. As the earth spins, air and atmosphere gather around the center of the planet, held by the earth's centrifugal force, like a climatological hula hoop.
I had only begun to get used to the oppressiveness of it all, the sheer ballast of the combined heat and humidity, and the constant squishiness and body slime that comes from an extended period stewing in one's own juices. There were still 6,000 miles to go.
I made my way towards the produce area. The air smelled of an impossible melange of sweet, unfamiliar fruits, colorful vegetables, herbs and spices, all intermingling with the reek of raw sewage, excrement, fish, and meat rotting in the sun. I stopped at an open stall where a heavy-breasted woman was frying a whole fish in a deep skillet. The fish was yellowish, scaly, about a foot and a half long.
"What kind of fish?" I inquired in a primitive-sounding fusion of Spanish and Portuguese.
"Piranha," she cackled over the spattering oil. She was pulling my leg, but I didn't care because I was too damn hungry, and told her I wanted the fish. She served it up on a plastic plate next to a blob of beige, suspicious-looking rice. The fish peered at me rudely with cloudy fried eyes as I stabbed a fork into its side and pulled away a strip of skin. The meat was white, oily and extremely bony. It was delicious, especially accompanied by an ice cold Antarctica beer which, despite the hour of the day, tasted superb. I devoured the fish in a few minutes and spent the next half-hour picking small needles of bone from my teeth.
It was time to find passage upriver. It took a while to find a ticket because none of the boats I encountered took travelers. The majority of them were cargo vessels being loaded with heavy machinery and cars headed to Manaus and deeper into the Amazon. I got the impression from it all that there was a lot of development going on in the jungle. Some of the boats looked barely sea-worthy. They rode low in the water and appeared as though they'd been hammered together by someone with few, if any, woodworking talents. Finally, I came upon a large weary-looking thing called the Joao Persoa Lopes. There was a tall, very dark man there loading crates of tomatoes on board, and I asked him if I could buy a ticket. He pointed me to a nearby office where I encountered a pretty young woman behind a desk, an "America's Hottest Hunks" calendar hung on the wall behind her. This month's hot hunk was Brad Pitt. I bought a ticket and asked what time I should be there.
"Very early," she said. "There will not be much space."
That was an understatement. I showed at seven and the boat's two passenger decks already looked like the Fall of Saigon. Anxious passengers shoved and jostled for the limited space available with the ferocity of a pack of Upper-Eastside octogenarians at a closeout sale. I plunged into the mob and sought a place of my own, adroitly using a dropped shoulder and the occasional well-thrust elbow to maneuver myself into a very narrow spot between a Brazilian man and his family and three Brazilian boys traveling alone.
Around two, the engines finally coughed to life and we started up river. It was a big moment, an exhilarating moment. I realized then how miserable I’d been feeling, and that my negative attitude went further back than my bad experience in Belém. One note about traveling alone: you meet a ton of people. Every town, every stop, there are new encounters. You exchange the obligatory "where are you from" and "golly, aren't we different than you", which almost inevitably evolves into a "hey, aren't we similar", because you almost always find that you have actually seen many of the same films and television programs, and you realize that crappy programming is understood to be bad across the globe, even though we all still watch it.
I enjoyed meeting people, but I'd been on the road for over two months and I was weary of the transient dalliance. I didn't really want to be home, exactly - the idea of slaving in some corporate cubicle made me want to vomit - but I didn't really want to be moving around so much either. It was tough on the psyche to constantly be on the go, forced to make new acquaintances, find new places to stay every night, let alone worry about the language changing on you, as had happened since I entered Brazil. Of course, in a better state of mind, these can comprise the fun parts of traveling. I suppose I don't know what I wanted, exactly. I guess I was just lonely.
But now, at this moment, I felt better. I was riding high on that beautiful energy that comes when you realize that you are doing something remarkable, that you'll likely never do again. Something you'll remember forever. Slipping away from Belém, the fragrance of the river became separated from the cacophony and reek of the city. It was a powerful jungly smell, redolent of plants and animals, water and waste. Of life. The smell jangled the neurons of some ancient sub-cortex, a primitive almond-shaped bundle of cells that spoke of millions of years of successful existence, of organisms fighting for resources, mating, eating and killing. Surviving. My mind rang with the chemo-electric celebratory banshee wail of the vibrancy of life.
It was, altogether, a very good feeling.
I remember when I first saw the Mississippi River. I was 22, and my girlfriend and I were road tripping across country from California through southwest and the deep south. After two weeks of camping at national parks and numerous grungy campsites along America’s highways, we reached Baton Rouge. There, we came upon the churning brown spectacle of the Mississippi. The first thing that struck me was the amazing width of the river, the immensity of all that movement, the breath-taking sight of all that chocolatey water flowing from one place to another. Where did it all come from? Where was it going?
So now imagine riding on the largest river in the world, a river by which all other rivers are measured, a river twelve times larger than the Mississippi.
The Amazon River is gigantic. For nearly four thousand miles – about the distance from New York to Rome - the river cuts across the South American Continent, coursing through dense jungle and rolling across massive flood plains before finally disgorging into the Atlantic Ocean in a cataclysmic confluence of salt and fresh water. The river’s tributaries and adjoining rivers reach across a vast plateau covering an area almost as large as the United States.
To really comprehend the magnitude of the Amazon, it's necessary to look at some numbers: During flood stage in April and May, the river discharges approximately 6,500,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Atlantic. The Amazon comprises one-fifth of all the fresh water flowing over the surface of the earth, and a quantity sufficient to put the State of Texas under an inch of water every day. A single day's discharge could supply water to all US households for more than four months, with enough left over to fill every swimming pool west of the Mississippi. The Amazon is also the deepest river in the world, reaching over 300 feet in some places. It’s often referred to as the "freshwater sea" because its water remains fresh for over 150 miles into the Atlantic. The river is also arguably the world's most efficient earthmover: every two days its heady currents carry enough sediment into the Atlantic to fill three Empire State Buildings.
In 1541, the first journey down the Amazon was led by a one-eyed Spanish soldier and conquistador named Francisco de Orellana. Orellana, who also happened to be the brother of Pizarro, led his company in search of vast forests of cinnamon, as well as the elusive El Dorado, the fabled city of gold that, along with the Fountain of Youth, were popular pipe dreams of that era. A young Dominican friar named Gaspar de Carvajal came along as the chronicler of the expedition, and his record of that first descent from the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic raised the bar for historical hyperbole.
Although his account is based in fact, it is often riddled with bizarre observations that have perplexed anthropologists for centuries. The most famous involves Carvajal's description of a race of warrior women, women who were "very white and tall and had their hair braided and wrapped around their heads". The Amazons, he wrote, as if pitching Fox executives on a new reality TV show concept, "go about naked, very muscular, but with their privy parts covered, with their bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men."
The myth of the women warriors persisted for centuries, indeed some (albeit few) optimistic anthropologists believe they might still exist. The Amazon Basin, after all, is pretty much the last remaining frontier in terms of terrestrial exploration. There are large swaths of the forest that have never been properly mapped and where it is likely no westerner had tread before. What's interesting about Carvajal’s account, though, is why he felt the need to exaggerate. It's not as if he were some 16th century John Grisham who was going to make millions on paperback sales. And wouldn’t he be aware this seemingly small falsehood could eventually be found out and possibly taint the entire account?
In the 19th century, the Amazon was the goal of many ambitious explorers. Probably the best-known American expedition of that era was made by Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt and many of his party fell gravely ill to malaria; indeed, much of Roosevelt’s trip on the river system of Brazil had him lying on his back suffering from horrible fever. In fact, it is now believed that the tropical diseases he contracted during his travels in the Amazon likely led to his death at the relatively early age of 60.
Partly due to Carvajal’s sometimes farcical account, the river captured the imaginations of explorers and adventure seekers around the globe, many of whom arrived with dreams of discovering cities made of gold and the Fountain of Youth. But it turned out that the Amazon’s gold was not to be found in the form of bullion, but instead in science.
One of the more famous first scientists to the region was the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whose small team mapped important portions of the river, confirming the link between the Amazon and the Orinoco. The English naturalist H.W. Bates spent the years from 1848 to 1859 along the Amazon, collecting thousands of species of animals and taking notes for his book The Naturalist on the River Amazons, published in 1863. The book is still regarded as one of the great scientific adventure stories ever written.
In the 1980s and 1990s scientists swept into the Amazon, eager to plumb the chemical riches of the forest canopies. For years now scientists have risked their lives dangling from climbing ropes searching for plant and animal species new to science. Some have applied the fruits of their drug research to developing novel compounds to combat cancers and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. These adventures inspired whole new form of tropical tourism.
Probably the most well-known advocate of preserving the scientific value of the Amazon is the renowned Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson’s books and essays on biodiversity have helped foster an awareness of the region’s vast importance as a source for new medical compounds and has brought attention to the extremely complex interconnectedness between the health of the forest and human life on earth.
The Amazon forest is commonly referred to as the "lungs of the earth", a phrase that has the feel of the overblown rhetoric of environmentalists, but in reality it’s not that far off the mark. The Amazon Basin alone produces about 20 to 30 percent of the Earth's oxygen. The plants that grow there affect wind, precipitation and temperature patterns on the entire planet. Almost one-third of the world's 8,600 species of birds and one-fifth of the world's plants are found in the Amazon ecosystem. An estimated 10 to 30 million species of insects can also be found there, including more than 4,000 species of butterflies.
Unfortunately, this fragile resource is being destroyed at the alarming rate of 96,000 acres per day, which means an estimated 17,000 species of plants and animals found in the rain forest are being driven to extinction each year. Wilson calls this loss devastating to the future of humanity.
Still, I had to admit that from the croc’s-eye view of this small boat traveling upriver, it was tough to see all the problems wrought by industrial development in the Amazon. The river itself seems such a magnificent, imposing force, and the jungle seems so impenetrable that it is hard to imagine humans having any impact here at all. But of course we do. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder with a kind of sadistic glee that someday the river might just fight back and, during a terrible future flood, unleash it’s power across the continent, making us ponder nature’s awesome force and her timeless refusal to be controlled.
We steered into the center of the river, which at this stretch was almost two miles across, latte brown, and swarming with other crafts, from massive sea-going ocean liners to drifting mats of vegetation that often looked like permanent land forms. Watching the river induced a dream-like state, its movements were slow and rhythmic, like a heartbeat. Hanging there in my hammock I felt part of this thing, the river, I felt a familiarity with it, a kinship, as if I'd been here before.
My reverie was shattered by a child sitting two hammocks over playing with a plastic toy. The toy consisted of two solid plastic balls that swung around a handle in opposite directions (if you knew how to shake it properly) and smacked each other, causing an extremely loud clack-clack-clack that soon had my blood boiling. I looked around, and no one else seemed to be having the same problem with the sound as I was, so there was no one really to turn to for commiseration. I contemplated seizing the toy from the child and hurling it overboard.
On the other side of the boat, on a bench, my hammock neighbor was sitting with his daughters. I went to talk to him.
His name was Francisco. Francisco dos Chagos Dominico di Sousa. He and his wife, Paula, were on their way home to Manaus, where he worked for one of the Brazilian shipping companies. I immediately liked him. He was obese and friendly in a Tony Soprano kind of way, and had the habit of going shirtless during the boat ride, which took a while getting used to because his belly was so huge and rotund, globe-like, and clumps of hair grew obscenely around his nipples in halos of dark fuzz.
Our conversation was limited by my frustrating inability to make the jump from Spanish to Portuguese, but we managed nonetheless, through broken Spanish and wild gesticulation, to learn a little about each other. Francisco was traveling upriver with his three daughters, Gloria, Tereza and Daniella. They were pretty girls whose copper faces lit up when they giggled – which they did a lot. They seemed very curious about me. They pestered their father with questions they wanted him to ask me. Was I married? Where did I live? Did I personally know any movie stars? He asked me how old I was. I told him I'd be turning 30 in May. He said I looked much younger.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"Thirty-six." I thought he was older. "My wife is twenty eight." And then, pointing to the girls. "My daughters are six, twelve, and sixteen." I nodded and considered the math. I asked him to tell me their ages again – this time to use his fingers. He did. My math was right: his wife gave birth to their first daughter when she was twelve.
That evening, I noticed a European-looking woman struggling to tie her hammock to an overhead beam. She was a stout middle-aged woman with short, graying brown hair, a high forehead, and tan, strong arms. I got up to help her and we struck up a conversation. She introduced herself as Traudi. She looked at me with a pair of amazingly blue eyes. This was her first trip up the Amazon, she said. She was on her way to meet some friends in Manaus.
"I could have flown," she said, "but you don’t learn much about a country by flying over it."
Traudi was Austrian, but lived with her husband, an American gastroenterologist, in Rhode Island. Her son worked for Proctor and Gamble in Germany, having just finished Wharton business school. Back in the states she was an "onboard anthropologist" on a late 19th century schooner that took tourists out on educational trips.
I immediately liked Traudi. She exuded a kind of Aunt Bee warmth, but also seemed remarkably tough, and I could tell that she was accustomed to taking care of herself. She’d obviously done a lot of traveling, and had been a lot of places alone.
"Travel is my education, she said. "To meet people from many cultures, you learn how we’re all different. But, more importantly, how we are all basically alike."
I enjoyed talking to her so much that after just a little bit, as if in therapy, I started to tell her lots of personal stuff, some of it naïve claptrap like how I wanted to travel for a living and how the idea of heading back to the states to slave in a cubicle sounded like some sort of purgatory. But I also got into deeply personal things about my family life, issues that I’d never really spoken to anyone about. What made me open up? Hard to say. My only guess is that it must have been the unrelenting loneliness of these past few weeks, the seemingly endless rides with strangers along empty roads, the evenings alone in cheap hotel rooms throughout Argentina and Brazil. I hadn't really sat and talked with anyone in English for months - particularly someone so maternal. I remember sitting there and listening to myself and wondering why I kept on going. Why I wouldn't shut up. But I couldn’t. It felt too damn good to have someone to talk to. And Traudi was a good listener. She listened to me talk for hours, nodding and asking pertinent questions, chiming in with examples from her own life that I could relate to. It was a good thing. Because as the riverbank swept by and the sun went down that first day over the Amazon, I suddenly felt a lot less lonely.
Around midnight, it started to rain. It was heavy, thumping rain that fell in huge diluvial quantities, as if someone had drawn a sharp blade across the belly of the sky. The drops smacked the river with a sound like gunfire, and the water dripped through the cracks in the ceiling and onto my bare chest, legs and feet, soaking me in a solution of deck grime and jungle spume that felt way too much like spit. I tried to change positions, to twist and contort my body so that the water didn’t fall on me, but you are sadly afforded very little freedom of movement in a hammock, especially hammocks that are hung as close together as steer carcasses in a slaughterhouse. Francisco and I were rump to rump, and Amós, the kid next to me, had turned his back to me so that his jutting ass bone stuck into my side like a blade. Apparently, normal social anxieties about touching strangers were to be completely disregarded here.
I grabbed a towel out of my bag and pulled it over my body, but it soon became heavy with water and stuck to me like a huge, over-cooked lasagna noodle. Meanwhile, as if this all weren’t bad enough, the boy with the clacker toy was banging the balls together somewhere off in the darkness. I suddenly felt very angry at him. It was starting to get personal.
I managed to get some sleep, but awoke the next morning staring directly into the fetid, filth-caked soles of Francisco's feet. At some point in the evening, as I dozed on and off, he and Paula had completely flipped their bodies so that his head was now pointed away from me and his feet were just a few inches from the tip of my nose. My stomach did flip-flops at the sight and I wriggled out of my hammock and maneuvered my way to the bow to find fresh air.
It was a warm, glorious morning. After the evening rain, the colors around us now seemed curiously brighter, as if someone turned up the saturation knob on the world. One of the porteros set out a plastic Igloo jug of coffee and I partook from it gratefully, pouring some of the hot, sweet liquid into a small paper cup. The sun burned low, stewing in a gassy saffron haze that hung over the river.
I encountered Traudi on the upper deck sunning herself and talking Portuguese with a young woman. The woman excused herself when I approached.
"Sorry, were you…" I said, hoping to convey an innocent I-hope-I'm-not-interrupting-anything-important vibe, but definitely wanting to hang out with her.
"Not at all. Good morning."
We stood for a while at the rail without saying much. The Joao Persoa Lopes, its engines grinding slowly beneath us, was running very close to the bank now, and the jungle rose about thirty feet overhead, poised like an animal about to pounce.
Traudi told me about her hobby studying the Cape Verde islands, an archipelago of about ten islands lying off the West African coast. The islands, she explained, had been colonized by the Portuguese, but over the centuries had experienced an unusual amount of influence from other cultures, particularly Dutch, English and French pirates, the result being that this very small chain of islands developed an extremely multicultural flavor.
Her resume - as I pieced it together - made her seem like a modern day Beryl Markham. She was fluent in six languages, including Swahili. She had contracted malaria in Africa twice, and several other horrible-sounding infirmities in other exotic places. She'd been everywhere, it seemed, and had lived through a number of life-threatening situations in some of the world's most dangerous places.
"I lived with Bedouin tribes in Iraq and Syria," she explained to me as we sat in the almost inhumanely uncomfortable molded plastic chairs on the upper deck of the Joao. "And I was in Lebanon for the 'Six-Day War.'" She said she always made a habit of trying to learn the local customs of the place she was visiting, a priority I think every traveler should take to heart. "You have to respect other people, where they live. How they live," she explained. "Respect is the universal human language."
She’d met amazing and unusual people, and listening to her stories made me feel proud, that I, too had embarked on some magnificent adventure. But her stories largely put my own to shame.
"In Africa, I was friends with every major leader, so I'd be at a ceremony and be greeted by them all, leaders of groups that were fighting and killing one another. I was sure during these years that the CIA was following me. It made a lot of sense because of all the connections I had. I was in Ethiopia during the 60's, and was chosen to select artifacts for the Montreal Expo. I had free reign, which was very unusual for any Westerner at that time. I got to go all over the country to collect things. I was invited to the office of Idi Amin. You should have seen the things he collected. Amazing artifacts from all over Africa and the world. And I had carte blanche to sit with him. He brought me his personal album, and you should have seen it. This big," she said, holding her hands shoulder width-apart.
Lunch was served around noon, introducing me to a bizarre new ritual on the river. A prayer was read over the loud speaker, and a silence settled over the Joao. The table on the passenger deck was only about fifteen feet long and four feet wide. That seemed amply large until I realized that this one table was supposed to accommodate every person on the boat, all 250 of us who all came to eat at the same time.
The crowd standing around the table grew three and four people deep. Those of us waiting watched over those eating like mendicants in line for a free Christmas dinner. As soon as someone finished his meal and started to get up, there ensued a brief melee to take the vacant spot. I watched as one guy fought his way to the front, and just as he was about to sit, he was upbraided by a young woman. Apparently believing that he could redeem himself if he were chivalrous, he stood aside to let her have the seat, but before she could take it, an amazingly spy elderly woman leapt into the space in her stead, which caused a ripple of mirth and murmuring that spread out to the furthermost ring of on-lookers.
I eventually got my food, but long after mealtime had started, and by then, it was cold and all that remained were unwanted bits of sinew and gristle. This was accompanied by a lobe of under-cooked rice, mushy beans, and a hard yellow granular substance called Farofa, made from manioc flour that tasted like stale Grape nuts and glue.
There were two bathrooms on board - distributed according to gender - each of which had two showers and a toilet. The men's room was a revolting, a fetid testament to Third World uncleanness where the floor seemed eternally wet with urine and soiled toilet paper was piled into a foul hillock next to the toilet. Sandals were a necessity, though I would have preferred a family-size bottle of Lysol. The shower was nothing more than a narrow stall separated from public view by a slimy plastic curtain just large enough to keep your ass out of public view if you stood in exactly the right spot. The water was drawn directly from the river, which gave it a greenish-brown hue and filled me with the panicky fear of ingesting a mouthful of microscopic death spores that would leave me unexplainably ill for the rest of my life.
Of course, once the shower was done and I emerged from the stall having washed away almost three days of funk, well, that was the ultimate pick-me-up.
I decided to play the guitar. I'd hardly begun to strum when I was joined by one of those unfortunate fellows that you stumble across all too commonly in the Third World: He was a mangled, double-amputee who had a face like a lump of dough and a pair of filthy leg stumps that he waved around like orchestra batons. The man had literally dragged himself across the deck to listen to me play, an act that resulted in an awful scraping flesh sound. Of course I was overcome with pity – how could I not be? - and I could hardly ask him to leave me alone. So instead, I just kept playing. I tried a Pearl Jam song, but he had no idea what the words were, so instead I started to play a very simple, three-chord progression figuring we could make something up. I played the progression a few times through, and he began to sing along in Portuguese. He sang in a deep, clear, and surprisingly good voice, making it up as he went along. I had no idea what he was saying, but he seemed to really enjoy himself. Others looked on as well, and seemed genuinely entertained. When we finished, those who’d gathered around applauded. I offered my guitar to anyone who wanted to play, but no one took it. I played a few more songs, wondering how I sounded and whether any of these people had ever heard of Eddie Vedder.
Another night. It rained the whole time and well into morning. To make matters worse, little Amós next to me spent most of the evening writhing in his hammock like an unearthed grub. I got up and toweled off. It was six o'clock, and the boat moved so slowly it seemed to be still in the water. I climbed to the upper deck and found a chair along the rail. A silvery mist hung over the river like a scene out of Apocalypse Now.
Next to me, a mother was breastfeeding her child. She was an older woman and her tit hung free from her blouse like a sock with a stone in it. A dark-skinned boy in a baseball hat was chewing on a straw, his arms resting on the rail. He eyed me suspiciously, but when I smiled at him, he smiled back and tossed me a friendly nod.
"Bom Dia," he said cheerfully.
"Bom Dia." I said.
We came upon Prainha, a small village where the Joao was scheduled to offload some of its cargo. On our approach, a half dozen children, shirtless and skinny, paddled out in dugout canoes. They giggled as they rode the small waves of our wake. The village appeared to be nothing more than a row of faded and crumbling buildings on the waterfront, although further back, where the trees were thick, I could see the blue and white steeple of a church. The Joao came to a stop at a narrow pier that had been recently painted green and white. We were greeted by a gang of tough-looking men who immediately began hauling crates off the boat and putting them onto a flat bed truck.
When this was taken care of, we got underway again and the Joao was steered up the middle of the river, which at this point was only about a half mile across. I laid back in my hammock and noticed for the first time the vast and unsavory amount of crap that had piled up after three days of sailing. There were balled up wads of toilet paper, discarded batteries, empty chip bags, stacks of newspaper, a molded plastic arm which had once been connected to a doll, aluminum cans, the lower mandible of a pair of dentures, steel soup cans, an oil can, a used condom, a soiled sanitary napkin, a shoe, and a disconcerting number of large, black insect corpses. All of this passenger detritus had been accumulating since we'd been on the river.
I wondered if by the time we got to Manaus, we’d all be buried beneath a hundred tons of garbage. But just then, a portero came along to sweep up. He started at the front of the Joao, and swept beneath hammocks and around people's belongings. He swept under the benches and the dining table. He swept underneath me as I lay in my hammock, and would have scooped away a valuable Mag light that had fallen out of my pack if I hadn't snatched it away from the greedy reach of his broom. He pushed everything into a single pile that soon grew to such Brobdingnagian proportions that he could hardly push it with the broom any longer and was forced to lean his entire body against the broomstick to get the pile to move. I swung around in my hammock to watch, wondering exactly what he was going to do with it all. I couldn't remember seeing any trash bins aboard. He pushed the pile towards the back of the boat, and when he reached the rail, he unlatched the rear gate, flung it open, and, without the slightest hesitation, shoved the entire pile of garbage into the brown churn of the river.
My watch said 6:15 PM when arrived at Monte Alegre. It was still skull-warpingly hot. There were monstrous black birds circling overhead with wingspans five to seven feet wide. They had to be some species of vulture because only vultures, to my knowledge, are that large and black and ugly.
I asked one of the porteros how long we were staying, and he said we'd be moored here for an hour, so I stepped down the steep gangplank and walked into the village. I considered taking a brief swim in the river, but there was a rainbow-colored film of grime on the surface of the water. Water spilled from the Joao’s bilge as well as from two other smaller boats that were moored nearby. It seemed unclean, but the truth of that matter was that it wasn't the pollution that had me nervous. I was far more afraid of what lurked in the opaque waters.
By this time, I’d read enough about the Amazon river to know that there were enough dangerous and unfriendly creatures lurking there to make a decent horror film. The thought of being squeezed like a lemon by an angry Anaconda was bad enough, there were also flesh-eating piranhas, razor-toothed caimans, electric eels whose long, slimy bodies could generate enough voltage to fry you like bacon, and disease-bearing leeches. And of course, perhaps the worst of the all, there was the stranger-than-science-fiction candirú: a tiny, needle-thin fish that swims up your penis while you're urinating and lodges itself inside your urethra by means of a set of nasty spines. Only a God with a dark sense of humor would invent an animal like this.
The Bible speaks of a plague of locusts, and I experienced the closest thing to such a plague that night. We moored along the river at a small village whose name was not on my map. It was warm, but not overbearingly so. Near midnight, there was a discernible buzz, a low hum that filled the air. Suddenly a cloud of insects descended upon the Joao. They weren't mosquitoes, but large bugs, black and beetle-like, with wings and hard carapaces. At first, I thought I could ignore them, assuming they'd go away, that maybe this was some freak of nature. But their numbers were soon so great that they were impossible to ignore. It was almost hard to breathe. The bugs were all over everything. The table looked alive, the ground was swarming, people tried to flee, but without any place to go. An open bag of chips was alive with fluttering wings. The deck quivered and squished. I retreated to my hammock and threw a towel over my body, lying still in the futile hope that the bugs would think I was something inanimate and not worth landing on. It was no use. They alighted upon my face and crawled over my lips. They got under the towel and beneath my T-shirt, a few of the more daring ones even managed to sneak up the legs of my shorts, ascending very close to my privates before I jumped up and did a perverse-looking Samba and shook them out. It was horrible, creepy as hell, and the closest thing to the end of the world I've ever known.
The next morning, with little sleep behind me, I caught up with Traudi on the upper deck at around six. It was much cooler, and a heavy mist hovered over the river, creating a Paleozoic haze.
"How'd you sleep," I asked.
"Pretty well, considering," she said, referring to the beetles.
"Those bugs. What the hell were they?"
"No idea. Pretty awful. So, how are you and the Brazilian family getting along?"
"Good. We've become a regular family over there. Very close."
"I'm not sure what my husband would think of me sleeping with so many people," she said.
"I'm not sure if I'm sleeping with them or they with me," I said as a joke, and then spent the next hour trying to figure out what I meant.
The Joao steamed into Santarem that afternoon. The city of 250,000 is the mid-way point between Belém and Manaus. I walked along the dirt road that skirted the river and stopped in at a small store to buy a soft drink. A small boy gripped his mother's thigh outside, wailing loudly. I asked the lady inside what was the matter and gleaned from the few words she spoke that a Caiman had just eaten his puppy.
Two boys came in who appeared to be in their late teens. They were both white, blond, almost comically fresh-faced, and wore natty, pressed slacks and bright white Oxford shirts with black nametags. Mormons.
"How's it going?" one of them asked, his accent purely American. I didn't ask how he figured me for a fellow countryman, but said hello and asked how they had ended up here. They were missionaries, here in the middle of the Amazon on a two-year stint to convert the local population. Elder Glenn and Elder Mark. I'd met many Mormons before while traveling abroad, and they were always the same: extremely clean and earnest young men out to win the minds and souls of the local populace. I asked them how many they'd managed to convert.
"A few", Elder Glenn volunteered.
"Well, almost. But we've only been here for a few months."
"Must be very hard, out here in the middle of nowhere."
"It's not too bad," he said with a self-assurance that struck me as forced.
"We're getting used to it," Elder Mark offered, though with limited enthusiasm. They seemed like a pair of good guys, remarkably well-intentioned, but I had to wonder what the people here thought of them. I thought of the movie The Mission with DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, and wondered whether people in places like this really understand what they’re being sold. I also wondered how in the world these two guys managed to keep their shirts so clean.
"I'll catch you guys later," I said as I left the store. They stood there holding bottles of Coke, and watched me go with expressions suggesting that they wanted nothing more than to come along.
About two hours up from Santarem is the village of Obidos. Here the river is at its deepest, reaching over 300 feet. As we approached the village, a small flotilla of people in dug out canoes paddled out to intercept us. As if alerted by some hidden signal, people on board, suddenly came to the rail and started tossing personal items - clothing, shoes, bags of produce and plastic bags filled with cookies, a children's picture book - over the side. The canoers raced to catch the items before they sank. A shirt fluttered into the brown water and started to sink, but two children in the nearest canoe quickly paddled up to it and fished it from the water with an oar. I wondered, did they reenact this ritual with every boat that stopped in port?
The people who live along the Amazon are called Ribereños, a Spanish word meaning "the people of the river". They are also sometimes called Caboclos. Those whose homes were on the river's edge lived in small, shack-like dwellings built on stilts about five feet high, a distance apparently lofty enough to protect them during the flooding season. The shacks themselves were often windowless boxes constructed of rough hewn boards and, despite their elevated status, seemed as though they would easily be carried away by high water.
Who are the Ribereños, I wondered? And what is life like on the Amazon River?
Ribereños are mostly mestizos, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, not jungle natives. They are homesteaders who have chosen to settle beside the river because the land is cheap, if also prone to flooding. Many of them live without electricity or plumbing in areas so remote that they have no contact with the outside world save for boats like ours that pass upriver, and where a rifle, a lamp, or an outboard motor is considered a prized possession.
It’s a tough life. Work on the river is notoriously strenuous and it must be done while enduring the unrelenting heat and humidity. Diseases like malaria and dengue are epidemic, even if much of the local population has developed a tolerance to these often-deadly diseases. The children are plagued with intestinal worms. The Ribereños subsist largely on river fish - there are some 1800 species of fish in the Amazon - but they also grow food in small gardens in the fertile river soil.
In the last few years, the Ribereños have battled with the government in Brasilia over land rights as the corporations, both foreign and domestic, have moved in to develop the forest at a rate that many say is unsustainable. As a result, a way of life is quickly disappearing, something I could almost sense as we were rumbling past the ramshackle huts and the children in canoes on the river. The Amazon is simply too great an available resource that man would just leave it alone. That is not the way we are. That is not our nature.
As I'd learned on my second night aboard the Joao, the only place peaceful enough to escape and play guitar without a mob of onlookers was at the bow. For some reason, people didn't gather much up there, preferring the crowded confines of the main deck.
The breeze blew strong off the river, carrying away the notes of the guitar so that I could hardly hear myself play. I played some soft, mellow tunes that I could sing out loud without attracting much attention. I sang Jimmy Buffett and Neil Young. I threw in a Beatles song and something by Nirvana and the Eagles. The bliss of that moment is hard to exaggerate.
We edged close to the left bank, and the jungle was like a great impenetrable wall sixty-feet high. It was difficult to discern the many different shades of green. Everything took on darker, muted hues, even the flowers, even the sounds coming out of the jungle. The sun set and the sky flared orange and red and persimmon. I watched a single crane, a long-bodied silhouette, needle-like, soar over the calm water without a single flap of it wings. A caiman slithered off the bank into the water very close by with a gentle splash.
I was picking Hotel California when Traudi came up to the deck and saw me hanging out.
"Hey there," I said cheerfully.
"It's so quiet up here."
"Yeah, it's great. I'm surprised others haven't found this spot."
"They seem to enjoy being close to one a another."
"Yeah, well, I’m not so sure I can take all the togetherness much longer."
"Me too. I needed to get away."
"Are you Ok?" Although the light had faded, I noticed that she looked very tired. Her whole face seemed to sag a bit on her skull, a little bit of looseness I hadn’t seen before.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just took my medication." She paused. "Sometimes this happens. I just needed to find a place to be alone." I had no idea what medication she was referring to, but took the hint and grabbed my guitar and left her in peace. I went back to my hammock and swung there for a while, reading the book I’d recently started, Moby Dick.
Half an hour later, a little girl approached and stood in front of me. Her bare feet were dirty and she wore a ragged pink dress that was torn at the bottom. She lingered for a few moments, watching me.
"Si?" I said.
She spoke in Portuguese, mumbling something about "the American lady." I knew right away she was referring to Traudi.
"What about the American lady?"
The little girl shook her head. "Mui enferma," she said, and then she pointed towards the back of the boat.
I was out of the hammock in a heart-beat and followed the little girl to the back of the boat. We ducked beneath hammocks and climbed over piles of people's belongings, my foot struck an old man's leg and he let out a yelp. We passed around the main table to the doorway of the women's bathroom. A crowd of Brazilians, mostly women, were gathered just outside.
There was a susurrus of voices when I walked up and a woman pointed to me and said, "Doctor". I shook my head, but someone behind me nudged me forward. I could feel scores of eyes watch me as I kneeled towards Traudi, who was lying on the ground in the fetal position. The air around her was thick with the stink of human waste. Pools of filth spread from her body in all directions. I tried to breathe through my mouth, but gagged and felt the urge to throw up. Traudi wore a T-shirt and a pair of running shorts, which were completely soaked in waste. Her eyes were pinched closed and her arms were folded tightly around her chest. She was in great pain. Her body shook violently and her teeth chattered as if she were freezing, even though the temperature was easily 100 degrees. I placed a hand on her shoulder. "My God, Traudi. Are you OK? What's wrong?"
Her expression changed. She knew who I was. Her eyes parted slightly, revealing irises that had been so blue to be very dull, almost colorless. Her body shuddered and convulsed and through her pale lips she uttered a single word, which came out as a horse whisper: "Cholera".
There was a chorus of gasps behind me followed by a flurry of commotion. I turned around, and where before there had been twelve or fifteen people standing behind me and watching, now there were just two. The rest had split.
Cholera. I didn't really know anything about it. Was it some kind of bacteria? Yes, it had to be. It was passed through tainted food and water, but this was hardly comforting since we'd all been eating the same food and mostly drinking the same water. Cholera was deadly, I knew that much. My God, I thought. How long before everyone on the boat had it? How long before I had it? I pushed the thought as far away from the present as possible and searched my memory for any information about cholera. How was it treated? How long did it take to kill you? What exactly were the symptoms? I didn’t know! Traudi's body convulsed again and she started to wretch, making a horrible noise, like an injured animal or a motor that won't start properly. The only thing that came out of her mouth was a thin yellow-brown liquid. She was dehydrating.
"Water!" I screamed at one of the women standing behind me. She nodded, disappeared and soon returned with a cupful from the drinking tank. I took it from her and gave it to Traudi, whose hand shook violently as she held it, spilling most of the water on the bathroom's tiled floor. She drank slowly, sipping in between heaving gasps, and then almost immediately threw it up again.
There was an Israeli women on board who I’d spoken with briefly a few days ago. She was part of a group of young travelers who’d mostly kept to themselves since we started up river. What mattered most was that she spoke English. I explained to her what was happening and asked her to watch Traudi while I went in search of help.
"Keep giving her water. Make sure she drinks it," I ordered.
I searched the boat, asking everyone I saw if they knew of a doctor on board. I asked dozens of people, but no one knew. Many didn't seem to care. I went back to check on Traudi and was dismayed to find the young Israeli, whose name was Miriam, on her knees just outside the bathroom. Traudi was a few feet away alone, lying on the bathroom floor and Miriam was slumped over, pounding her little fists on the deck and wailing, "SHE'S GOING TO DIE! SHE'S GOING TO DIE!"
"Look, no one is going to die," I consoled, holding her by the shoulders and looking directly into her eyes. I tried desperately to force a calmness into my voice that I didn't feel. "We’ve got to keep it together. Traudi needs help. Look, I'm going to find the captain. Please, stay with her and I'll be right back." Miriam nodded, and composed herself.
"Please, come back soon."
"I will," I said, and went to find the captain.
I scrambled beneath hammocks and climbed over napping passengers to reach the front of the boat. There was a man there in the dark, standing at the bridge behind the wheel. He smoked a cigarette.
"Donde esta el capitan?" He led me a few steps outside and pointed to a closed cabin door. "Aqui," he said. I knocked and heard movement inside. Thirty seconds passed. I knocked again and waited. Finally, the door opened and I stood facing a short, troubled-looking guy about my age, maybe younger. He was shirtless, flabby and wore white boxer shorts, and in the faint light behind him I could see a woman and child lying together on a low mattress. There were yellowing pictures and posters on the wall and a small radio played music from atop a wooden bed stand. A familiar face glared down on me from a poster on the wall, a face I’d come to know well during my travels through Latin America: Che Guevera.
I explained the situation in Spanish, but he wasn’t interested. He looked at me as if I were a loon, some deranged American tourist here at his door to complain about the food. Then his face took on an irritated glare, as if he was pissed at me for disturbing him. He said something that I didn't understand and I told him to repeat it slowly. "Viente horas hasta Manaus," he said. Ten hours to Manaus. He started to close the door, but I blocked it with my hand.
"This is very important," I said. "We've got to do something now."
"Viente horas," he said, and then closed the door.
Traudi remained on the floor, shivering and retching. She looked worse. She was extremely pale, almost greenish, as if someone had pulled a plug beneath her chin and all the blood had flowed out. There were other women from the boat around her, but no one except the Israeli was helping. The Israeli had pulled herself together and was now trying to get Traudi to hold down some water, but each time Traudi drank a cup it would come up a few moments later.
The smell in the bathroom area had become so bad that my eyes watered. I found an old towel, which I tore into pieces and used to clean up the floor around Traudi. My hands were filthy, and I knew better than to let them come into contact with anything I might later inadvertently handle, so I rushed to the shower and washed my arms up to my shoulders. Then I took an old shirt of mine from my backpack, went back and laid it over her to keep her warm.
Traudi would have to be moved. Women wanting to use the bathroom had to push past me and step over Traudi and one of them accidentally smacked me in the back of the head with her knee.
"Traudi," I said. "We’ve got to get you out of here. We need to lay you down somewhere…"
"Please don't," she pleaded.
"Traudi, we've got to get you off this floor. You've got to be somewhere dry and warm."
"No. It hurts too much. Just let me lie here. Just for a while."
I didn't know what to do. I stood over her wondering if I should forcibly try to pick her up and move her someplace else. But where? During my explorations around the boat, I'd found little free space available. There were simply too many people and too much crap onboard the Joao.
I was very angry. Not just perturbed or upset, but red-faced, steam-coming-out-of-my-ears, pissed off. I told to Miriam to watch Traudi and made my way to the captain's room.
The captain's door was closed. I pounded on it with my fists. I tried the handle, but it was locked. There was movement inside, and then the door opened slightly, so that the captain's face was just a few inches from mine. I explained that there was the real possibility that if we did not stop soon, Traudi might die. The captain didn't believe me. He scrunched his eyes together and stared at me blankly, like a dumb animal. Then he turned and started to go back inside. Furious, I seized him by the arm, yanked him out, and shoved him against the wall. This had the desired effect. His eyes grew wide and he put up his hands to defend himself. I hadn't slept or eaten well for five days, my hair was greasy, uncombed, and longer than it had been in years, and my face, fringed with a scruffy fleece of facial hair, was a mask of grime cut by runnels of sweat. He must have thought he was about to be thrashed by a psychopath. And I would have thrashed him, too, if he didn't agree to stop. He said he would radio ahead to the next village and we could take Traudi off and get her help.
"How far is it?" I asked.
"Sete horas," he said. Seven hours! I gritted my teeth. He shrugged defensively, a gesture that said, "That is all I can do," and turned to go back into his cabin.
Traudi was still lying on the floor of the bathroom. Miriam was bent over her, trying to get her to take some more water.
"We need to get her out of here?" I said.
"She doesn't want to be moved. I think she hurts too much." Traudi's fits of retching had subsided. She agreed now to sit up, and once we got her back off the floor, I was able to get my shirt around her shoulders. She let us move her, and we carried her to the back of the boat and found a narrow space near a gate among a snake’s nest of mooring ropes and we laid her down.
"Traudi, what can I do for you?"
"I don’t know. Just…just don't let me fall asleep." Her voice was so weak, the words came out in hoarse little gasps. "Please."
"I won't. I promise."
The hours passed with excruciating sluggishness and the darkness of the nearby forest was absolute, like gazing into empty space. To keep Traudi awake, I asked questions about the places she'd been, hoping to elicit the enthusiasm she'd expressed when discussing these things earlier. But she was too tired to speak, so I sat and rambled about anything that came into my mind. I talked about school and my favorite movies. I talked about my family and about all the traveling I hoped to do in the future, the places I wanted to go. I told her about one of my lifetime heroes, a guy from my hometown named John Goddard who had set over a hundred goals when he was a kid, and had spent his lifetime achieving them. I explained that I hated dealing with a 9-5 job, how the idea of sitting in a cubicle somewhere was enough to make me want to stay out here in the jungle and live with the Ribereños. But I was getting very tired and caught myself several times dozing off.
So I made myself as uncomfortable as possible, bunching up a tarp beneath my ass in the belief that the pain would keep me awake. Every few minutes, when it seemed as if her breaths had become heavy, I grabbed Traudi by the leg or shook her arm. Then the light would gleam off the moisture in her eyes, she'd give me a faint smile.
She laid her head on my lap so I could better monitor her breathing. A few times it got so shallow that I thought she had stopped breathing, and, fearing the worst, I shook her awake, once so hard that she grumbled at me. Every half hour or so she convulsed and retched, turning her head to the side so she could expel the thin gruel of stomach fluid and water that constituted the sum total of matter that was in her stomach.
The evening seemed to go on forever and my head swarmed with misgivings about what I was doing. What the hell had brought me here? How had I ended up so far from home? What would I do if she died, right here, on my lap. But the unpleasantness of these thoughts, ironically, kept me going. The fact was, I knew exactly what I was doing. This was real, a moment, albeit a rough one, that would never be forgotten. I prayed that she was going to make it, and uttered scores of vague and platitudinous promises that if she did, I'd be a better person.
Around four am, I was so tired that I couldn't keep my eyes open. We had about two hours to go before we reached the village whose name I didn’t know. I was afraid that if I fell asleep, Traudi would sleep too, and she would die. I got up to get a drink of water.
I paused at the rail and gazed out over the river. It had long since fallen dark on the Amazon. All of the passengers were sleeping in their hammocks, and a strange harmony of snores competed with the rumble of the engine, investing the scene with bizarre, but not unpleasant, discord. A pale moon hung dolefully low in the sky behind us, immersed in a creamy broth of clouds; its light diffused across the broad horizon and shone off the river like spilt milk.
I poured myself a cup of water from the vessel. I went back and sat next to Traudi, drinking deeply and wishing I had some coffee. Would someday a Starbucks be built along this stretch? Probably, I thought. But the power of sleep was too great, and despite my best efforts, I dozed off only to be awakened about half an hour later by Miriam, shaking my foot.
"We've stopped," she said. There was a light shining across the boat from the shore. I panicked because I'd fallen asleep and grabbed Traudi by the arm, shaking her hard, perhaps too hard.
"Ouch," she said.
"Traudi, I'm sorry."
"I'm OK," she said. "Can you get me some water?" I fetched a cup and gave it to her, and was glad to see she could keep it down.
"Traudi, we're in a village. We're going to get you off and taken care of." She groaned as I helped her up. With her arm draped over my shoulder, I carried her off the boat and onto the ramshackle pier where we were moored. To my surprise, the captain came along. He finally seemed to grasp the situation’s gravity, and as we walked together in silence towards the village, I felt less anger towards him.
It was still dark, but on the waterfront there were several lights aglow, surrounded with bugs, like angry electrons swarming around a burning nucleus. The waterfront consisted of several dilapidated shacks whose colors were mute in the weak light. One of them had a narrow porch whose boards were either missing or terribly disfigured by the heat and humidity. Home maintenance must be a bitch along the river. A dirt road ran from the end of the pier along the river for about a hundred yards and then swung into the heart of the village.
We scuffled along the road for what seemed like a mile or more until we encountered a man in a beat-up Audi who offered to help. I loaded Traudi into the back and got in with her and the captain. The road was in such poor shape that we were thrown around whenever the car hit a bump or a tire plunged into one of the crater-sized potholes.
Finally, we reached a dark building somewhere in the middle of the village. A short stairway flanked by two columns led to a door. I carried Traudi up the stairs and the captain knocked. A small man with glasses opened the door and, with a startling lack of scrutiny, let us inside. A fluorescent tube buzzed overhead and soaked the room in a sickening light. The walls were yellowish-white, streaked from ceiling to floor with ugly brown water stains. A cockroach the span of my hand skittered into the shadows beneath a metal desk.
We were led down a narrow hall and into a poorly lit room with a cot and a pair of metal chairs pushed up against the wall. The man took hold of Traudi's wrist and checked her pulse. He disappeared for a moment and returned with a cup of water. She seemed to be doing much better now. She could sit up and keep the water down, but her hands shook and her face was completely drained of color. She looked twice as old as the day before.
The doctor said something to me in Portuguese that I didn't understand. He called out and a young woman came in from an adjacent room bearing an IV rack that, to my astonishment, seemed almost new. The doctor spoke again and Traudi, aware enough now so that she could translate said:
"He says I need to stay here. Someone needs to get my things off the boat."
I set her down on the cot and told her I’d go. The captain and I left together. The driver was still waiting outside and he drove us back to the pier. By this time, most everyone aboard the Joao was standing along the rail impatiently wondering why the boat had stopped for so long, although I was fairly certain the news had spread that the American had contracted cholera. The captain went back to his cabin without saying a thing.
I gathered Traudi's things into a bundle and left the boat. When I reached the hospital Traudi was lying down on a cot in another room with the IV stuck into her arm. The doctor smiled and shook my hand. He nodded and said something in Portuguese. I think he was saying that she was going to be OK. He seemed like a person I could trust, but I wanted to hear it from Traudi. Standing by her bed, I could see that her eyes had regained much of their blueness.
"I'm going to be fine," she said. "The worst is over. You don't need to stay around. Go back to your trip."
"Are you sure? I have no problem staying with you until to Manaus. I'd like to stay."
"No, you go ahead. The boat's waiting for you. The doctor’s going to call my friends in Manaus. They'll come and get me. I'll make it."
"How will I know?"
She gave me her email and phone number. "We'll get in touch when you get back. You've still got a long way to go. Now get going or you'll miss the boat." I turned to ask the doctor if she was going to be all right. He nodded and said something that sounded like, "You betcha."
When I returned to the Joao Persoa Lopes, everyone on board was standing on deck waiting for me. They weren’t happy. I returned to my hammock stood there for a moment feeling exhausted, but when I laid down, I found it impossible to sleep. I lay there wondering if I’d done the right thing by leaving Traudi there alone. Would I ever see her again?
The boat started upriver again as a faint morning light snuck over the horizon. I was still awake. I got up and stood at the rail thinking about her. When I went back to my hammock I was stopped short by something on the ground near my feet. I looked at it and all the anger and frustration of the evening seemed to take the form of this familiar object. I noticed too that there was a near perfect line between it and an open slot at the edge of the boat. I lifted my foot and felt like Tiger Woods sizing up a sweet 18-foot putt for birdie. When my foot connected with the object, I knew I’d hit it just right. I watched the plastic clacker toy sail over the edge and plop into the river, disappearing into the dark green water. Suddenly, I felt much better, and I knew that now I’d be able to sleep. In fact, when sleep came, it arrived fast and hard, and sent me to another world distant from this hot, faraway place.
Another two months would pass before I'd reach the United States. I hitchhiked and rode rickety buses through Venezuela, roamed across that country's marvelous Gran Sabana into Columbia, posed as a Canadian as I crossed one of the most dangerous borders in the world where kidnappings and killings are common. And then I was in Panama, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica. I made it to Mexico and endured a long, miserable bus ride to the border, where, after more than three months of travel, I returned to my own country.
I almost cried when I saw my father at the bus station in downtown LA. He hardly recognized me when I got off the greyhound bus from Tijuana. Who was this scroungy freak? Certainly not his son, the fresh-faced young man who had decided to travel back to LA from Antarctica.
“I’m so glad your safe,” he said.
I’d lost 20 pounds on my already lean frame and the thing I wanted most of all was an In-and-Out hamburger.
It took me over a week to get up the nerve to reach Traudi. I found her email address in my wallet, and opened a new message. I wrote a long note about the last month of my trip, filled it with colorful details and thoughts about the experience. But when I finally got ready to hit send, I changed my mind, erased everything and wrote simply: "Are you OK?"
That was it. A day passed, and when I saw the reply in my inbox, I didn’t open it immediately. I let it sit there for a few minutes, creating awful scenarios in my mind of someone else answering for her, someone explaining that she had died in the jungle. I clicked on the message and felt an almost religious surge of emotion when I read it. "I made it!" she wrote. "Thank you so much. You saved my life."
I was exultant and immediately wrote back, gushing about the great news and going on ad nauseum about the last month of my travels. I had not saved her life, I told myself. That was far too grandiose and proud. But I had helped. And now, with her alive at her home in Connecticut, me at my parents’ home in Los Angeles, I had time to think back on the whole trip, the magnificent ups and the soul-crushing downs. Which category would this part of the trip fit into? Probably both, I thought, which seemed a fine compromise, a satisfying way of looking at life as a whole.
And when would I travel next? What would be the next great adventure? I didn’t know. Like all of our experiences, this one had now transitioned from immediate reality into the realm of memory. My memory.
It’s funny to ponder that fact. That all we are, all we’ve done, simply disappears and ends up in the cells and juices and infinitesimal electrical pulses of our brains.
The funny thing is, at that moment, filled with gratitude and joy that Traudi had lived, I realized with certain satisfaction that that was enough.
Erik Olsen is a journalist living in Los Angeles. He has written for the Seattle Weekly, Seattle Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times.