by Peter Nelson
When last we saw our lonesome hero, he was bailing madly with a battered coffee can, desperately trying to keep a cracked and leaking dugout canoe afloat long enough to make it at least another 100 yards upstream.
After ten weeks on the water, the rivers are shrinking fast. The mighty Orinoco River branched into multiple tributaries, big streams turned into small ones, the little streams shriveled up into creeks, and this creek looks more like a muddy footpath than a navigable waterway!
When the water dries up, ya gotta walk. This little jaunt turns out to be a two-day slog through incredibly soggy bush. (Can’t remember the last time my shoes were dry.) And this so-called “path” is festooned with creepers and vines — where’s that razor-sharp machete that jungle adventurers always use? — and enough bugs to make the air positively foggy. But finally we find a wet trail that some people might call a “stream”.
Paddling once again, down some nameless river (since this water has absolutely no current at all, it’s more like a giant, island-strewn lake) in this dangerously overloaded canoe with a small quiet family. They drop me off on this small patch of dry land, a clearing maybe 50 feet in diameter in the middle of this immense and totally flooded jungle. It IS the rainy season, after all. Here lives a small family in a small hut, in the middle of what seems to be abso-bloody-lutely nowhere! No other huts, no other people, no animals, no sign of a canoe, no nothing. The dugout that brought me here hurriedly paddles away back downstream, leaving me alone with this puzzled-looking native family.
We cannot, of course, speak to each other. Maybe they speak Quechua. Or Yanomaman. Whatever, it sure ain’t Spanish or Portuguese, so gestures are our only option.
However, as usual, hospitality reigns. They feed me and give me a hammock in a corner of their spacious empty hut. And it is almost completely empty. They seem to have no belongings whatsover, and there’s no electricity, of course, no plumbing, no privacy of any kind. When nature calls, you just wander as far away from the hut as you can, and that isn’t very far!
Giant trees tangle together high up overhead in an immense arboreal conspiracy. These leviathans of lumber hog all the sunlight, leaning close together, curtaining off this tiny fragile clearing. Even on what appears to be a bright and sunny day, it’s so gloomy inside the hut that you couldn’t read, assuming you weren’t already heartily sick of Thucydides! So there’s absolutely nothing whatsoever to do, except walk in a neverending circle around outside the hut.
Well, you can go clockwise one day, and then counter-clockwise the next day. The human mind thrives on variety, they say. Can’t even explore the jungle, since there’s no other dry land anywhere, just these damp and dark and heavy trees, as far as the eye can see. Which isn’t very far.
And what little land there is, is totally barren. And I do mean totally! Not a single plant anywhere. When you think of the jungle, you imagine this fertile, fecund explosion of green. A riot of vegetation. And that’s true elsewhere. But on our tiny island, these arboreal behemoths dominate everything — towering overhead and blocking out all the sunlight, as well as sucking all the nutrients out of the soil. My hosts don’t have a garden, not even a tiny one. Is everything brought to them by river traffic? And what can they offer their suppliers in exchange?
We eat twice a day, and the meals are utterly silent. Maybe they don’t speak out of politeness, to avoid excluding me. Or maybe they don’t speak because there’s absolutely nothing to talk about! Breakfast is a wet, starchy, tasteless, tough and chewy root. Manioc? The evening meal is more of the same, but it’s over a relatively convivial campfire, so at least we have a bit of firelight to brighten up the gloom. Once in a while, suppers are fleshed out with a piece of meat that to my paranoid gringo eyes looks suspiciously like the heart of a dog.
But, hey, when in Rome …
I’m here for 10 days, maybe 2 weeks, who knows, but it feels like 6 months, especially since I don’t have a clue when I’ll be getting out of here. Just waiting for the next dugout canoe heading in my direction. Whatever direction that is. For that matter, since there’s nothing but water in every direction, who even knows where the nearest river is?
My fate’s totally in the hands of others. As usual.
Eventually, another canoe shows up. This guy gets out and talks to my hosts, and I am gestured over to climb aboard. This trip is fairly short. The flooded stream turns into a creek, the creek shrinks down to a puddle, the puddle dries up, and then we have to walk. Another two-day hike. To the Terni? Or the Pimichin? Since I don’t know where I am, it doesn’t much matter that I don’t know what river this is.
But, saints be glazed, the next little creek actually goes DOWNstream! That means we must be in Brazil! Or as near as darn-it. It also means that paddling is optional (unless of course, you’d like to have some control over your craft!). For the first time in months, the rivers are going in the same direction I am! Hallelujah!
Coming into Brazil via this jungle route, through the back door as it were, there’re no fences, no customs, no immigration, no borders of any kind. No buildings, no people.
Ahah! Our hero’s beady eyes light up. No customs means no stamp on the passport. No stamp on the passport means you can stay in the country as long as you like, since they won’t know when you arrived. Ay, carumba, we’ve heard such wonderful things about this magnificent country, we were hoping to stay a long time. Normally they let Americanos stay for only 3 months, but hey, us wetbacks can stay forever!
And my next ride is pretty high tech. This canoe actually has a motor. And a crew. And believe it or not, it’s NOT LEAKING! A company rep is paying employees working in the jungle. He gives them some paper money, and they mark an X in his book. Eventually, we motor over to the very young Rio Negro, not yet the mighty giant it will become downstream. At the end of the day, they drop me off at Cucui, a Brazilian military outpost just inside the border.
I’m taken to the commandant. Capitão Brasil by name. The capitão is not impressed.
“This is not a tourist camp,” he informs me.
OK. Thanks for the welcome. The only other foreigners in the outpost are a couple of Polish priests. Since my knowledge of Polish is even worse than my Portuguese, we can’t talk to each other. What else is new? But they take me to their hut for a convivial cup of tea anyway, and on their front table, I spy a chessboard.
Aha! The universal language. I gesture at the board. Would they care for a game? They would. They’re apparently beginners, but keen ones. I win every game, but that doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm. They insist that I move in with them and give them chess lessons in exchange for room and board. Even though we can’t speak to each other, gestures get the job done. Again.
After a week or so, Capitão Brasil decides my innocuous presence is a threat to the security of his small world, so he arranges a small motorboat to carry me away. And I have to pay for the gas!
OK. Here’s Uaupés.