Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Water and Sky
At a certain point in the Amazon the roads end and the only way forward is by air or water. So just after dawn in Porto Velho, Brazil (after arriving in town at 4:30 am by bus), I grabbed a taxi for the docks. Almost magic: waiting in the muddy brown Rio Madeira was the triple-decked Almirante Moreira IIV, already heavy and getting heavier with crates of tomatoes and sacks of potatoes, bound that afternoon for Manaus.
By noon I was aboard, hammock tied to the rafters of the middle deck; $70 for three days and nights, three meals a day included. On buses passengers slink deep into their seats and try not to move; on boats people open up and live in public – a sojourn, in interlude, time stopped – a coalescing into one big anonymous family. It’s an evanescent live play that lives and dies for the duration of the voyage. The Moreira was overloaded, of course: too many passengers and way too much cargo. The waterline was nowhere to be seen. We’d barely pushed off from the half-sunken dock when we had to pause mid-stream as the harbor police zoomed in to make things right. Some arguing, some handshaking, a “fine” paid, and we were sliding downriver at ten knots.
Hopefully, I thought, we wouldn’t end up like the Almirante Monteiro (which I’d actually spent five days on two years ago), which crashed into a fuel barge on the night of February 25th, sinking and killing at least nine.
No matter. Hammocks were strung so close I was literally under two and touching one on either side, and to move anywhere on the deck you had to duck and weave and crawl. And it was hot, steamy, close. But all was not misery: by the time we slipped into the current the samba was cranking from six-foot high speakers and the beers were flowing and the girls and boys dancing up on the open top deck. Irma and Val were sweating and swaying as if the double-time beat was intravenous, and the wedding rings changing fingers with the speed of three card monte. Irma moved hers first, followed by the Paulista in surfer shorts, and an African Brazilian acowboy with green eyes in Stetson and high-waisted jeans went right for the bedraggled mom with a pack of barefoot kids gnawing at her ankles.
“Sex,” said a young doctor named Kleyton, “is all Brazilians think about.” He winked and then tried to slip a finger under Val’s bikini top.
But libidos settled down and life unfolded: beer and sun and breeze and Samba and dominoes and cards and the Southern Cross overhead at night, as the flooded banks passed hour after hour. We brushed our teeth and washed our faces and snored all together in front of each other, all 200-odd people showering and shitting in four stifling little toilet/shower closets that gushed cool brown river water. We stopped only once, at two in the morning to take on a truckload of frozen whole fish, which were loaded into sacks like cut wood. Breakfast was at dawn, the barbeque sizzling by nine for a snack, as 100 fingers danced with a flashing blade slicing great slabs of marinated beef.
After four nights without a bed and several thousand miles of mud roads and crowded buses and long-distance group cars and the riverboat, I was unprepared for two shocks: the industrial lights of Manaus and its sprawling port, all steel and sodium vapor brightness. It seemed alien, the textures and scale not of the world I'd been in for the past week or more. And my flight the next afternoon on TAM to Porto Alegre. The plane, the airport, it was all so new and shiny and dust-free; so affluent and anonymous and synthetic. I hadn’t realized how adjusted I’ve become to good, bad, hard travel.
But, as I’ve come to learn, affluence can be a mirage; you confuse the appearance of luxury and modernity with safety at your peril. It’s a common mistake. Brazil’s aviation system – Latin America’s largest – has been wracked with delays and accidents. It was just nine months ago that TAM flight 3054 skidded off the runway at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas airport in the rain, killing all 189 passengers and crew, plus ten on the ground. That just five months after a judge, citing Congonhas’s short runways and slippery conditions, barred 737s and Fokker 100s – most of Brazil’s intercity fleet – from using the airport. The Lunatic Express rolls on: I’m in Porto Alegre now, flying on the same flight to Congonhas tomorrow. And it’s raining in Sao Paulo.
It’s not called 3054 anymore, though.