On the Anna Beatriz IV
This is a formidable river ship we’ve boarded, much longer than the Anna Karoline and at least twice as wide besides. An entire extra deck of hammock hooks means that our views will be significantly elevated and the amount of raw, human mass is easily quadrupled. We load ourselves just as the crates of green bananas pass inside. We will all be ripening quickly on our three day push to Manaus. Along with the bananas are packed boxes of cabbages surrounded by the merciful mask of pungent aroma afford by several tons of citrus. A sound system, too, and motorcycle are added to our cargo hold.
A deck above, and a world removed, reveals a similar cacophony of snack hawkers, tumbling children, men on laptops or shaving with a hand mirror, old women lounging professionally and a general milieu of mini-missions and sub-plots leading feet to cross paths and an organic atmosphere of relaxed chaos to take root.
A deck above this sits your loyal scribe, extending his sense throughout the ship in order to puzzle thru the relevant details and find a communicable cohesion. To his back swings a few limp hammocks and some filled. Before departure the chaos will spread here as well, like a diffuse gas under pressure. A deck above this one, and the final surface to be enumerated, all is still still. Paint cans huddle in a corner, the lifeboats cling to each other in constant emergency orange and the round tables stand empty and bolted vertical.
No kites shimmer farewell, a spiral of vultures will have to suffice. Nobody waves goodbye from shore, but the railings fill all the same with quiet gazes outwards. These passengers are taking advantage of the chance to see something disappear. There will be plenty of time later for peering inwards, to observe the shores of self and witness the things departing there too.
This is decidedly a different river flowing beneath a different boat. It’s so large we stay far from shore. Less apt to observing the wildlife, we turn further inwards. Friendly brasileiros buy us food and beers, dealing cards and trading knowing winks whenever a young woman passes by. But the time for those nights have passed for us. We simply desire a peaceful river trip to take advantage of, before this chapter of our lives fades to a dream.
Tyler practices meditation to still his restlessness, his need to count down to the next big thing. No need to anticipate. Enjoy the quiet before the storm. He meditates for five minutes before slumping back, asleep. I pick up where he leaves off.
At times like this, when moving thru the epilogue of one’s voyage, a last ditch ambition can prompt a stab at the Big Question, looming elusively at the periphery of every traveler’s itinerary. Why do this at all? For me especially, why drive myself further into debt for some wild goose chase far from home?
The Big Why
“The first question you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘what is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer at once must be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
“Everybody is looking after everybody else so beautifully that nobody has any fun at all.”
I wouldn’t compare what we did to climbing Everest. We weren’t completing a first in any big category, although thru its own contingent intricacies this trip was a first in the world. Still, the same economically useless urges to break the monotonous cycle of birth-work-death that compelled Mallory to make a blitz for the peak also inspired me to set out for South America.
“The need to extend the self in time and space—the need to create in order to live, to breathe, and to be—precedes, indeed, of necessity exceeds, the need for self-reproduction as a personal survival function.”
It’s never been too mysterious, really. The long answer is we wanted to see what the people down here were up to, to make the abstract real and dive into the map, to read amazing books during an extended stay outside of routine and enjoy incredible food. We wanted to spend our money in the best way we could imagine while young, to see what it was like to travel with a friend, to cross a continent overland and to grow our capacity as human beings. In the spirit of Rolf Potts, we wanted to vagabond.
The short answer is that I am Curious George peering at the universe within Mary Poppins’ handbag. This is the next tattoo I’m getting, and what it depicts has been my lifelong condition. A friend of mine plans on incorporating the Vonnegut quote “So it goes…” into his tattoo design. To me, this is that quote made visual.
Travel, in the broadest sense of the word, has always been the most effective means of discovering the size of the world and our limited place on it. More than that, however, travel uncovers the vastnesses within ourselves, teaching us how to extend these immensities towards the remote corners of the world we thought no one could feel at home in. And when we find ourselves at home in another’s home, we find we feel like a child of the universe, which we are. Even as we forget names and numbers, this is something to remember. As I’ve said before and will say again:
Matter doesn’t matter much
in fact, not much matters
but what matters matters much
I travel to remember what matters.
I also travel so my writing has somewhere new to go. As you’ve noticed over the past 19 entries, I have a knowledge base a mile wide and an inch deep. Fortunately, wearing the hat of Travel Writer vindicates this flaw and puts it to good use.
“Travel writing is one of the last great “generalist” professions, where you are integrating all this knowledge — geography, history, religion, language, culture, art, literature, music, architecture, ecology, biology, anthropology, sociology, storytelling, politics, philosophy — into one coherent narrative that communicates place and culture to the people back home.”
Writing about people and places in a compelling and accurate way has been a wonderful challenge, but sometimes it’s okay to let them speak for themselves. Over the past five months, I jotted down little sayings I heard people utter briefly in conversation. Usually they were comments that seemed to highlight something quintessential about the speaker, or at least epitomized a mood or belief system with which we’re all familiar.
“Nothing is secure.”
-Linda, housewife married to investment banker
“Some things cannot be measured.”
-Lisa, Dutch student studying organizational anthropology
“I mean you don’t have to get laid if you don’t want to.”
-Johnny, Canadian solo traveler into partying
“There is a demon within every bottle of vodka.”
-Joana, Brazilian lawyer
“It was safer to buy coke in Rio than Coca-Cola in Bolivia.”
-Jack, Aussie traveler
“With women, attitude gives you latitude.”
-Victor, 16 year-old Brazilian aspiring wrestler
“There are no borders, only those we make for ourselves.”
-Edu, Moldovan wanderer in Paraguay
“What quantum physics shows is that matter is mostly space, so this is all an illusion.”
-Tom, Canadian New Age nut
“Scratch a cynic and you’ll discover a disappointed idealist.”
-Jeff, New Zealand ambassador to Guyana and black death metal enthusiast
I found one more a few weeks ago when speaking to a good friend. He’d been earning fast money and dating plenty of women, but found himself confessing “I’m not the hero of my own story.” This, I realized, is another reason I travel. It affords me the feeling of full autonomy-even as certain privileges and rights may be taken away-which is something that can be difficult to achieve while snagged in a work routine, even in a free country. But I am one of the poorest people I know, and this means there’s good news for the envious. They, too, can be the hero of their own story. The first step is booking that one-way ticket.
A month and a half ago I picked up Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari in Peru. Since I returned to Seattle, I purchased his new book, the sequel The Last Train to Zona Verde. In it, Theroux gives his own succinct answer to The Big Why:
“Reading about a far-off place can be a satisfaction in itself, and you might be thankful you’re reading about the bad trip without the dust in your nose and the sun burning your head, not having to endure the unrewarding nuisance and delay of the road. But reading can also be a powerful stimulus to travel. That was the case for me from the beginning. Reading and restlessness — dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere — made me a traveler. If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes — importantly — to suffer the effects of this curiosity.”
The Paleoichthyologist at the End of the River
Until you zoom in on Google Earth, the Amazon Basin appears to agree with our romanticized view of a last, great stronghold of “pristine,” “untouched,” wilderness where tribes uncontacted by modern man hunt uakari with blow guns amid the buttresses of kapok trees. The reality is so large that this can be true at the same time that Manaus is true.
Everyone has heard about the concrete jungle of New York City, but fewer know of the concrete city of the Amazon jungle. Manaus is a city of two million, located at the grand confluence of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões in the heart of the Amazon. How is this so? The river is so massive, it can accomodate a major port 1,500km inland, and the people here crave the metropolitan lifestyle and jungle at the same time. We saw the barges, stacked four in a line in front of a chugging tug. They must easily stretch over 1,000ft. long, so huge they only move in daylight. This is how Manaus can maintain itself as “The Paris of the Amazon,” though that nickname seems pretty outdated at this point.
Even so, for a very brief period during the Belle Epoque Manaus was a force to be reckoned with. This is largely due to Charles Goodyear, who developed a method of vulcanizing rubber, and John Dunlop, who patented the rubber tire. Rubber prices soared when tires began to be widely used. Rubber barons paid for the ticket, food and tools of any plantation worker who would come tap the rubber trees. Many did come, and their enormous debt made them a type of slave to a horrible master. Meanwhile the money kept making its way over from Europe and the barons kept buying rococo frills, making Manaus “one of the gaudiest cities in the world.”
“One historian has written, ‘No extravagance, however absurd, deterred’ the rubber barons. ‘If one rubber baron bought a vast yacht, another would install a tame lion in his villa, and a third would water his horse on champagne.’”
It gets better:
“Within a few short years Manaus had Brazil’s first telephone system, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and an electric grid for a city of a million, though it had a population of only 40,000. Vast fortunes were made by individuals, and ‘flaunting wealth became sport. Rubber barons lit cigars with $100 bank notes and slaked the thirst of their horses with silver buckets of chilled French champagne. Their wives, disdainful of the muddy waters of the Amazon, sent linens to Portugal to be laundered…They ate food imported from Europe…[and] in the wake of opulent dinners, some costing as much as $100,000, men retired to any one of a dozen elegant bordellos.’ The citizens of Manaus ‘were the highest per capita consumers of diamonds in the world.’”
But once an Englishman carried a few rubber tree seeds to England, and later they were planted in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Malaysia, the boom busted. And boy did it bust! The barons lost their wealth and the opera house, or Teatro Amazonas, was left to decay for over 80 years. Manaus had been electrified before most European cities were, but suddenly nobody could pay for the generators. Southeast Asian countries grew and harvested rubber more effectively, destroying the Brazilian market. Synthetic rubber was developed later, which further eroded the need. This was all great news for the Amerindians, who were dying by the thousands in one of history’s most despicable industries. But in terms of wealth, Manaus had peaked.
All the wealth had flowed out with the river by 1912, the same year the “unsinkable ship” kissed rock bottom. Suddenly the dry season meant something again. Like many other fallen angels, Manaus lives under the shadow of a greatness that faded 100 years ago. Only by careful attention by curators, historians, painters and their ilk are these roses of a bygone era protected against the weeds of cheap construction and tinfoil ideals. They really don’t build ‘em like they used to. But here at least they keep them as they used to be, whether it’s out of embarrassment at the bubble bursting or as a cautionary tale against frivolity.
Today, though it has begun renovating many of its rubber boom buildings, Manaus is not exactly a jewel of the Amazon. The waterfront lies never far away, but you’d hardly know it given the layout of the city, which mostly centers around the resuscitated Teatro Amazonas.
On our way to our target hostel, we experience the competitive nature of tourism in the number one destination in the Amazon. Maximilian is a fast talker and strikes me as a fairly slimy dude, but he promises cheap rooms and free internet. Rather than accompany us one block to the front desk, he points the way before disappearing. Of course, the prices are much higher, the internet is not free and they do not in fact do laundry here. It could have been worse if we hadn’t turned down his offer to head into the jungle for four days. “Two Italian girls just signed up. Very nice! Big tits!” He holds his hands to his chest to help paint a picture of what we could be dealing with. With his record, though, chances are it’s two transvestites with chlamydia who failed out of Italian 20 years ago. Gotta be careful where you throw your money in this city.
This type of scamming is extremely common here, given the fact that Manaus has become the Machu Picchu of the jungle. Flocks of wealthy patrons fly in from around the world, having been romanced by the mystique of the exotic, which is perpetuated by every dreamer. But observe the soaring hotels and read about the elaborate hijinks that have evolved in order to capture a piece of the pie: men who dress up as reputable guides, fake negative reviews to mar the good standing of any competition with integrity. You name it, it’s happened. Even those things you wouldn’t normally name.
One of the things I don’t normally name awaits me at breakfast our second morning here. His name is Niels, and he is a paleoichthyologist. “I study fish fossils, but I’ve done all sorts of reading about dinosaurs as well.” Fantastic, I think, as I pour myself another cup of coffee. Niels is a 72 year-old retired scientist, a professor emeritus from Copenhagen who’s been publishing papers on fossils since the 60s. With upturned eyebrows suggestive of benevolent wizardry, Niels is one of the most cheerful men I know with a refreshingly precise mind and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to draw from. I am delightfully smitten to spend the morning hearing about how he is “disrupting the field of freshwater fish.”
He came here, you see, to give a lecture on two species of large, ancient fish living in the Amazon, the arapaima and another one we had eaten just the other day. The current thinking goes that these fish are true freshwater species and did not evolve from any oceanic species. But Niels says he has examined fossils in Denmark of a huge, extinct species that lived in saltwater and is remarkably similar to these fish from the Amazon. The implications would overturn many long held beliefs. How wonderful.
He also tells me that there are many authenticated cases of the candiru, the penis fish, swimming up a human penis. Taking his word for it (with some doubt still lingering deep down), I stand corrected and safely cautioned. How many cups of coffee have I gone through? All I know is I have been craving this type of conversation, where tedious details are enumerated with good cheer, where the world’s splendor is woven together in ticklish stories of a far reaching nature. In other words, it is the type of conversation I have unloaded on you, my silent reader, for the past five months.
Niels tells me about meeting the late, great Steven J. Gould once in the 60s and again 30 years later, how Italy gave France a massive fossil bed in return for Napolean’s protection from Austria. He speaks of the fiery politics surrounding paleoanthropology and how everybody wants to claim they’ve found the direct ancestor of man. He chuckles at these perennial foibles and asks me what I do. Though I’m sure his interest is sincere, I do my best to get past my own history and interests as soon as possible so I can ask him more questions about this esoteric world he moves thru so freely.
I wonder what it is like to be married, retired and free to travel as an established and respected scientist. Many dread the thought of going from lecture to conference, from museum to symposium, but I think of the company he must keep and the doors that are opened to Niels when he travels. It’s certainly one approach to get a behind-the-tour look at a place, and a way to stay active and relevant thru old age. His company makes me feel a strong wave of saudade for the grandfather who died before I could meet him.
We share a meal with Niels inside a restaurant with a dull exterior. The food ends up being so on point we leave a solid tip that confuses the owner. Manaus is excellent for food, whether it’s rodizio at a churrascaria or their unique tacacá, a jungle hot and sour soup I often order outside the operahouse. Live music plays, reminding me that Brazil pumps out some fantastic tunes, and I end up getting three bowls of soup in a row.
A Symphonic Insanity
Tonight is one of our final evenings in South America, and a Brazilian symphony from somewhere far away is playing for free at the operahouse. We don our nicest attire, which isn’t much, and step in a line that must form some type of simulacrum of the old days. The opera! The grande ole opry! Oh my, Herr Shöneberg, how oppressively hot my bosom has become! I simply must find my pearl-handled fan or I may faint before the conductor even begins!
Back in the day foreign opera troupes would arrive to give the rubber barons a big show. Often half the troupe would succumb to yellow fever. Not only that, the operahouse, built in 1896, was fitted with a capacity for only 700 people, which is the same as installing a self-destruct switch. There was no way theater tickets could ever economically pay for the absurd price tag that comes with importing Murano glass chandeliers from Venice, ironwork from Glasgow, maple, walnut, oak and mahogany fitted together as fancy flooring without any nails or glue. And that right there is why the operahouse has become the overall word to the wise in Manaus. Dream big, but integrate your dream with reality.
Inside, while resting my chin upon the velvet clad railing, I watche the musicians dressed in black make their clamor of noise and tuning for a brief eternity before disappearing and reappearing to patient applause.
The conductor strikes me as a broken broker on Wall St. who has lost everything in a sudden crash and gone insane. Now he is locked up somewhere, shivering in a straightjacket painting in his head an extravagantly vivid hallucination of order. A hallucination we have all been dragged into, in a jungle operahouse far from New York.
When he encourages the oboes, they gain heart and play. Delightful. A bit of nudging towards the strings and lo! they heed his call. His lips pucker with growing confidence. But will the thunder in the back obey? A jab with his stick. Yes! Even better, he can toss tempests with a bend in the elbow and a flick of the wrist! What was it he did before this? Who cares! The cellos sing and the flutes are swooning. One violinist is a hunchback, but his bow hangs on the tip of every whim of our mad conductor. When the crescendo rises and falls, the spell is not broken but fully cast.
The tragicomedy of the world’s dramas pass across his face. The suggestion, perhaps, of a sick girl dying, a grand entrance of nobles on horseback, bombs falling thru clouds, bombs landing on crowds, a thief stealing a string of pearls and the hint of a fat man tumbling down a spiral staircase. The greatest achievements of fallen giants are his to release, and at his discretion. A tension runs through his temple as the tempo increases and the music soars. The planet is rattling, verging on the edge of collapse. Patterns develop needs of their own, rhythms pull nearly away from pinched fingertips, but by some last second reserve he’s holding it all together with a staunch gravitas tucked behind a turned in chin. Silence strikes like lightning. The cable of nerves running between his shoulder blades extend again. A smile breaks like dawn. Applause is his proof of control. Somewhere, far away in a windowless padded room, a shivering man breathes easier.
And that’s pretty much what happened in South America. Plenty was left out, a requirement of every story, and I didn’t have time to get to every cool idea, like how our consciousness is a pattern that can be copied onto different media, which means that if our technology rises to the challenge, you literally could exist outside your body. But that just means I’ll have to travel again soon to explore further the acts on view in this flamboyant and comprehensive circus of ours.
On our flight to Rio from Manaus, a naked boy with Down’s Syndrome runs up and down the aisles of our plane, a sanguine flight attendant smiling down upon this unnerving chaos. He’s too old for this to make sense, but just retarded enough to hush any proprietary yelps. If an albatross is a bad omen for a ship’s voyage, what in the hell could this mean for us? The answer isn’t at all immediately clear, but I have a few extended flights ahead of me, and a lifetime leftover to consider such things.