Peter Nelson’s travels – Uaupes and down the Amazon

by Peter Nelson

 Well, this could be the last hump in the road back to what passes for civilization, but it’s proving to be a pretty big one.  Might be August before I get to Manaus.  At the moment though, I’m quite comfortable here in Uaupés, a Brazilian town perched right on the equator.  For a while, I was staying at the mission and eating with the bishop and some priests, and we had four excellent meals a day.  (Got to keep up your spiritual strength!)  Now they’ve shifted me over to the hospital (as a guest, not a patient), and I have no idea who I’m eating with.  I’m the only resident in a large ward of 24 beds.

The Sisters who run the hospital have an excellent flower garden.  Large and abundant in variety, though I don’t recognize anything except some pink roses.  Would be just the place to take a twilight stroll after supper, were it not for the fact that the Sisters, in their desire to nurture their blooming showplace, have so fortified the soil with manure that this enchanted beauty spot smells like an overpopulated barn.  Hoping to repay their hospitality, I help the Sisters by hauling manure and doing some weeding.

Lengthy stays in one spot greatly magnify the value of all forms of reading material.  Luckily, the Peace Corps couple in Ayacucho had a library of 200 paperbacks.  I traded them Thucydides (thank heavens!) for Moby Dick, Victor Hugo, Gide and Cervantes.  Unfathomable riches.  Plus, under a bed in the hospital, I found a stack of fotonovellas — like comic books, only with photos instead of drawings.  The stories are godawful soap operas, but, hey, any port in a storm.  And it’s a great way to learn Portuguese.  Many words look very similar to Spanish, so I can read it pretty well.  But the pronunciation is different enough that it can be hard to understand conversation.  Sounds like a cross between French and Dutch.  More musical than Spanish.

Uaupes from a hill overlooking the town,
Uaupes from a hill overlooking the town,

Climbed up the highest hill to take a photo of the river.  Along the way, I met a column of leafcutter ants, working away industriously.  When I bent over to watch them cutting out sections of leaves to carry away, I was amazed to discover that I could actually hear them working!  They chomp out these perfect little green semicircles, and drop them down to the busy ant highway below.  The workers on the ground retrieve the leaf pieces and head for home, forming this long narrow column of fluttering green sails on the march.

At the other end of the noise scale, we have yon flaming crimson parrot, one of which can set up a racket sufficient to send you diving for the nearest bomb shelter!  And if you happen to disturb a whole flock of the blighters, as I did yesterday, it bloody well sounds like the end of the world is at hand!  A tribe of howler monkeys going off in chorus is equally cacophonic.

Every third day or so, I walk out to the airfield, about 5 miles through the jungle, to check on the possibility of an outgoing plane.  On the way, I bent down to observe another ant expressway.  These guys are bigger than the leafcutters and highly aggressive.  They’re up both my legs and stinging me madly before I know it.  Little buggers are painful and persistent.  In revenge, I place some small rocks on their highway.  These little pebbles are like house-sized boulders to them.  Serious obstacles.  Interestingly, they immediately set about clearing the road, rather than just going around.

OK, guys, I realize you were just doing your job.  I apologize and clear their path for them.

Once I get to the airfield, I hang out with the troops (it’s a military post) for an hour or so.  What else do I have to do?  They, like me, are waiting for the next supply plane, a Buffalo (pronouced BOOF-uh-low).  Whenever one comes that has enough space on the return journey, it might take me to Manaus.

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The “hospitality lounge at the airport

Finally, it happens!  Finally, I’m here, believe it or not.  Manaus is fantastic.  A city.  Can you imagine that?  A city!  It has — wait for it! — PAVED STREETS!  And an OPERA house!  Aside from all the other urban attractions, I can forever abandon my diet of manioc and dog entrails or whatever.  Now I’m gorging myself on Brazil nuts.  And fresh raisins — have you ever had FRESH raisins?  Plus, Manaus is a free port, which means cameras, stereos, etc., are cheap.  And here’s where the Rio Negro meets the mighty Amazon.

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Manaus from the river bank.

 But the two watery giants don’t much care for each other.  They stubbornly refuse to join forces, they just slide along side-by-side, reluctantly sharing the same channel.  They actually stay separate for many miles before they grudgingly mingle.  Because of the differences in vegetation upstream along their routes, the Negro’s a deep black color, and the Amazon is sandy-brown.  Until they mix, the line between the two is so sharp, you’d swear they were in different channels.

Met this British chap, Roy, on the double-decker passenger steamer going down the Amazon to Belem.  He and I are traveling 3rd class, of course, so we’re down on the lower deck with all the families and their chickens and goats, etc.  A noisy but colorful, even musical, ride.  Meals are served out of this huge steaming cauldron amidships.  You have to provide your own bowl.  Graeme, an Aussie bloke, suggests I look up William Lawson when I get to Rio de Janeiro.  Bill teaches at a Catholic boys’ high school there.

A sign hanging from a chain across the stairs to the upper decks clearly forbids access.  “First class only.”  But, hey, a mere sign doesn’t slow down a farm boy!  And since we’re gringos, no one ever stops us when we vault over the chain and slip up to 1st class.  Up there in the stratosphere, we meet a South African couple.  From then on, we spend our days up in First Class, playing bridge and being waited on by white-coated staff, only descending to our rightful places for meals and to sleep.

When we got to Belem, the South Africans took us out for a day-long sail off the coast on their ocean-going 3-master.  A huge yacht reeling over in the offshore wind.  Assuming I was able to stand up long enough, my job was to make cucumber sandwiches and change the music tapes.  Is there a better life than this?

The night before leaving Belem, I hear of a macumba ceremony.  Macumba’s a sort of witchcraft / cult / religion similar to voodoo.  Foreigners are decidedly unwelcome, so when I creep up to this large, gloomy-looking building, I stay outside and look in through a dark window.  Inside, the large room is full of people, 50 or more.  Loud music, heavy on the drums, everyone swaying in place, candles burning.  A couple of bare-chested guys move to the center, obviously high on something — drugs, the music, the ceremony, who knows?  One guy cuts off the head of a live rooster and drinks its blood.  Rather messy.  The other guys drips hot candle wax all over his arms and chest.