In Amazonas: Looking Beyond the Hollywood Backlot

Brazil - The Making of a Novel - Part 29

The Journey -  Amazon River,  August 23, 1980

As the canoe moves along, only occasional flash of brilliant color. I think most of the birds have retreated deeper into the forest, as with the monkeys and other wild life, what little there is. I'm surprised by a lack of color other than green, only occasional touch of mauve, yellow or white, but put this down to dry season. During five days, several tropical downpours, short, furious, bursts of rain mainly in the afternoon, a respite from the heat.
Humble houses, pathetic little escolas alongside the tributaries, seem to attest to the impotence of man in this mighty environment. One is aware of the great wounds left in the forest by vast projects: as EMBRAPA pointed out, left to itself the forest can regenerate secondary growth in three to five years. This is not to say there isn't a threat.
The “Hollywood” version of the Amazon jungle is more impressionistic than Amazon Forest Interior near Manaus Brazil Uys real. I think many Amazon “adventures” were shot in California backlots showing a density and height that's not right. The greatness of the Amazon lies in its horizontal and not vertical spread; its sheer size and variety is what gives it an awesome aspect. Under the canopy, you can let your imagination drift back to  the very beginnings of earth.
If man is out of scale, so are the river fish. Saw a pirarucu that had been harpooned, six to seven feet, like a porpoise with “chain-mail” scale protection, so hard they're used as nail files.
The lianas look like taut cables stretching skyward, sometimes perfectly straight. Walking within forest, immediately assaulted by countless insects. Leaned against a tree and found small maggot-like creatures with pint-point black heads on arm. Think they're chiggers that bore into your skin. Repulsive to “civilized” man.
Walking along shore to swamp, water-logged trees, undergrowth... Picture how it must have been for those like the Madeira-Mamoré railroad workers wading through stench, insects, slimy mud underfoot, near Amazon Forest Interiorimpossibility once you enter area to find clean water.
Manaus, itself, continues to be an enigma, this island-city with its skyscrapers rising suddenly beyond the final hill as you emerge from the forest. The older, almost bizarre-looking architecture, English and French structures, market-place, library, post office, opera house take prize for incongruity. Though surely gave Manaus a special atmosphere during rubber boom days, unique and totally unlike skyscraper skyline of today.
Today's newspaper carried sobering news that Glauber Rocha died, age 43, of heart attack in Rio. (We lived as neighbors in Sintra, Portugal, prior to my coming to Brazil.) Was talking about Rocha last night at film of Getúlio Vargas.
(Some impressions from Vargas film: Depicted era similar to Peron/Bittencourt. First, there was striving for a Brazil independent of foreign dependency, multinational “colonialism.” 2) Genuine attempt to improve “lot of the workers.” Enormous popularism. 3) Many, many military-style parades in late 30s vaguely reminiscent of Mussolini's Italy, youth brigades etc. 4) symbolic flag burning, representing end of state hegemony and move toward national unity 5) Vargas, small, chubby, round-faced, spectacles, often smiling, seemed a genuine honest type. (Whatever the bias of film, I found it incredible to accept his suicide. Suicide note was a forgery to cover up his murder? I wonder. Must put that to sources.)
Almost time to go to the “Rodoviária” again — a word I will never forget. Twenty-one hours to Porto Velho.

A Meditation on the Great Cathedral of the Amazon Rain Forest

Brazil - The Making of a Novel - Part 28
The Journey -  Amazon River,  August 23, 1980

August 23 Maybe it was the heat, maybe the “intrusion of tourist types” but the five days spent at Manaus seem the least productive, including entire day wasted waiting for director of INPA, Amazon research institute, from 10.30 till 4. Spent the time in their library. When she eventually saw me, she told me to return the next morning at 9.30. I did and was told a) no one available for an interview b) no one to go with me to the “forest.”
At which point I said to hell with it and sought out my own boat on the waterfront Manaus Small Boat Dock Brazil Uysand found a personable navigator — Daniel! Six hour trip to confluence of Amazon and Negro, then into Solimões and through narrow creeks to enter cathedral-like forest. Exactly what I wanted.
Arranged a second trip for yesterday, another six hours, this time north, very different as we went through forest to cachoeira where we swam. God knows what you could pick up!
Perhaps it's the influence of the other estrangeiros who come filled with visions of tropical menace and talk of all manner of ailments but I find myself becoming “health conscious.” Won't dare miss my malaria tablet; bathe open “wound” on my foot a) with antiseptic solution b)powder antiseptic c) cover with Band-aid. Ultra careful with water and absolutely refuse salads.
Words like malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, hepatitis, septic wounds etc. commonplace in vocabulary but perhaps it's something else that calls for caution. In the U.S., in developed countries we have reached an ascendancy of man over Nature, control lies in our hands. The environment has been conquered and controlled physically and spiritually. Here, not so: when you enter the forest environment you are entirely at its mercy. Man is out of scale here, his size nothing against the horizonless, surrounding forest.
Again and again, I think of the entradas: How the small band of Raposo Tavares could have found its way through the jungle is amazing. Deviate for one moment from the mainstream and you enter a maze of water that twists through the forest, sometimes spreading like a lake, sometimes splitting into different streams that take off in several directions.
For an hour on Friday we drifted down a section of the Solimões, engine shut
Amazon River Bank Brazil Uys

off, everyone silenced. It was like meditation in a great cathedral. The trees offering every shade of green, the waters of the river colored green with their reflections.
A forbidding environment, gnarled roots of trees exposed on the banks where storm waters have torn away the soil; trees standing in the water, dead twisted shapes awaiting the final thrust of nature, when they will loosen their hold on the soil, fall and be carried away. Clumps of hyacinth stretch out from the banks, sometimes grow like small islands midstream.
Inside the forest, the water is smooth as glass, the area deserted, only occasional glimpse of a canoe with a fisherman sitting cross-legged up front, bow and arrow ready for action. A scene that was the same hundreds, thousands of years ago.
Waters deep blue out in the great rivers Amazon and Negro, a turbulent brown and blue at confluence, green in the forest. Brown, too, with soils carried down from the Andes.