A Journey Around the World
I. The Americas: Signs and Wonders (Part 2)
(warning: raw thoughts, rough draft, to be plundered for more polished pieces; facts, spelling, piquancy not checked)
Ready to board a ship. Ensconced in fancy resort, most expensive of this trip. All plans set, including complex radio-report arrangements, until I learn this morning, January 17, that the ship has been delayed...almost one day.
I've been so laid-back on this trip, so relaxed about delays. But the radio arrangements are now messed up. This resort is just a pretty and inefficient holding area -- an island of safety for free-trade-zone businesspeople and their spouses. Last night I asked three different waiters for "la cuenta," and finally left in a not-at-all-laid-back huff. Two olives roll off my plate to the floor at lunch this afternoon. I can't get a phone call through to home. I can rent a kayak in their little lake, but for $20 per hour. Have to fight over a phone and Internet bill that wanted to be as high as my room bill. And I'm feeling real lonely again. Shit. Perfect reminder that without the car I can't just go; I am dependent; I can get stuck.
But the guy on the phone says the ship -- my ship -- is finally docking. And my driver, while 45 minutes late, does eventually come. The dog who needs to sniff my backpack also, in time, arrives and manages to look properly uninterested. A van drives us to the massive, floodlit vessel and the purposeful hubbub that surrounds it. I board. My passport will be the captain's responsibility for a while.
I suspect there are people, even people I know quite well, who would not be thrilled to be boarding a huge container ship at midnight in Manzanillo, a port next to Colon. I suspect that some would not be smiling this wide as they are led up an awkward walkway, with giant cranes lifting or lowering truck-backs fore and aft. The thought of spending six or seven days with the German officers and Filipino crew of this freighter, as it adds to or subtracts from those containers in various Latin American ports, might, I suspect, not be everyone's idea of a dream voyage -- even were they berthed in the "Owner's Cabin" (the only available room on the ship).
Why is that? Are they not in awe of grand machinery? Is it not a privilege for them to be so positioned that they can see something of the mechanics of human commerce? Do their thoughts not sail when in all directions they can see nothing but sea? Do they not hear the attempts at conversation between the ocean's surface and its depths? Do they not crave the goofy wonder of being where, more obviously than usual, they have no obvious reason to be? Or is it just that they were too young or too old for Kerouac and the romance of denim-clad, grease-stained, purposeless motion?
Front seats, saddles, decks. The only passenger on the Sea Jaguar, as it energetically does its business at the port in Manzanillo and prepares to wait its turn to enter the Panama Canal, must have been just the right age.
(See "The Slit in the Americas" -- Technology, Globalization and the Panama Canal -- in FEED)
Dream lesson: I'm in an earthquake. Guess reverberations from the one I missed, by a week, in La Libertad are being felt down here in Panama after all. That I'm having this dream must mean that I'm not quite so cavalier about the workings of fate as I've pretended to be. That I'm having this dream may also have something to do with the fact that it's five o'clock in the morning on Thursday, January 18, and the Sea Jaguar has just started to move.
I am right now, as I type, in the Panama Canal. Cool, huh? (Though those who lack my literary bent might wonder why I'm sitting in my cabin playing with a laptop instead of pacing on the dark bridge, listening to the pilot saying stuff like, "starboard twenty.") I know they have cruise ships going through this thing now. Your aunt and uncle probably took one once. But I'm on a real, honest-to-goodness freighter, which is much cooler. (Okay, how's this? I took my laptop and my beer out on deck.) Right now -- it's 10:05 p.m. -- we're following a path of blinking red and green lights through the lake between the sets of locks on the Atlantic and Pacific sides -- passing little dot islands, hearing faint tweety and chirpy bird or animal sounds along with the putter and metallic vibrations of the big ship itself. (Bet you're glad your Journal keeper took his laptop outside, now!)
Fact is I'm totally into this massive ship elevator. I'm into the international gathering of huge ships -- about two dozen visible at most times -- that was swarming around the Canal's Atlantic mouth all day, waiting their turn to "transit." (We waited more than twelve hours.) I'm into the variety of accents in the English spoken by their captains on the radio, as they asked permission to drop anchor or wondered why the pilot was late. I'm into the fact that the heart of the Canal is a huge man-made lake (that's where all the green-and-red-light, chirpy stuff is happening right now), cause I didn't know that. Until my friend Randy, who drove here on his motorcycle a long time ago, told me, I also didn't know that the Atlantic entrance is actually somewhat to the west of the Pacific entrance. That's neat too. I'm into the fact that ships get raised and then lowered about 85 feet -- lifted, as it were, over the Americas and then eased back down to sea level. I'm into the way they flattened the skinny little piece of a continent they got here in order to make the lifting easier. I try not to make too big a deal over the fact that it was Americans who built the damn thing, even though I'm the only American on this ship. I am, however, becoming a big Panama Canal guy. (Damn. Just saw a large, lit-up, wedding-cake cruise ship heading down the Canal the other way.)
And, oh yeah, there's some stuff to say here about globalization...and this ship, for example. Built in Korea in 1997. Owned by some Germans -- as part of a complicated tax scheme, I'm told. (Hence the German officers, the European fixtures and the washing machine that takes two and a half hours to do a load.) The Sea Jaguar, a container ship out of Hamburg. But the ship has been leased to an American company, Crowley American Transport. (The acronym apparently explains the vessel's odd name.) And it spends its time primarily plying the waters of Latin American, moving containers filled with bananas, electronics, cosmetics, ice cream (many are refrigerated), aluminum foil, chemicals, rolls of film for processing in places with looser environmental restrictions, you name it. (Actually, I got one of the guys on board to provide this rough list.) Those containers are themselves one of the best examples of worldwide standardization. Every truck, every railroad car, every ship that wants to get in on this global lugging game has to be prepared to handle a box of one of two precise sizes -- full or half (my Toyota was stuffed into a half). No choice. No alternative. (And that size was chosen to fit American roads.) It ain't digital, but this is real workmanlike globalization, if you ask me.
And, speaking of workmanlike, how about the job this Canal has been doing for the past 86 years? The Panama Canal was finished just when an earlier age of globalization ended: in August 1914. The telegraph, cables under the oceans, steamships, railroads, the telephone, radio, the first automobiles, the first airplanes. Not a bad little age of innovation they had going for themselves back then. In some ways, as I have written, more world-changing than our own. And this was a time when you could travel around most of the world without a passport. Global trade was booming before the First World War. And the little slit they made in the Americas, this passage into an ocean Europeans didn't even know existed four hundred years earlier, should have been one of the most glorious of these glories. Except that era ended. Europeans set about murdering each other in trenches. A depression came. Various curtains were hung over various parts of the world. Containment. There were more and more places you couldn't travel even with a passport. Our current age of globalization in some sense dates only from 1989.
And guess what's now a big part of it. How do you think -- how did I think -- all those Japanese cars find their way to Long Island? How can they drink Evian in San Francisco? How do Nikes make it to the malls of New Jersey from those cheap factories in Thailand? How do Dells get to Singapore? They ain't moving this stuff over the Internet? All those ships waiting their turn -- at tens of thousands a transit. Carrying all that stuff.
Canal construction is hardly cutting edge technology. Just about as old as they come. This one -- made possible by innovations in lock building, mountain leveling and, in particular, disease fighting -- has outlived many of its predecessors (their old mule paths reduced to jogging trails). But our current age of globalization owes a lot to the digging of this particular ditch. It owes a lot also to automobiles, a more than hundred-year-old technology, and airplanes, almost a hundred years old. It is deeply and increasingly in debt, of course, to television, seventy-five years old. And our goods are being lugged through the Canal on what are essentially updated, steel-clad steamships like this one, amalgams of various mostly 18th-century technologies.
It takes a while, as I like to say, before such technologies really come into their own. This, not anything Wilber and Orville saw, is really the age of the airplane. The age of the Internet is probably still a long way off. Its great contribution may be to some future age of globalization. And the Panama Canal? They got a sign on one of the buildings saying, in Spanish and English, "A Canal for a New Millennium." Hard not to conclude, based on what I've seen today and tonight, that its time is right now.
I wanted to get all that down.
(See "On Being Away Without Entirely Leaving," LonelyPlanet.com.)
January 19. For the first time in my life, out of sight of land on the truly huge -- the largest thing on earth, isn't it? -- Pacific Ocean. It sure didn't take long for this massive ship to look small. Why do I get such a kick out of these escalating reminders of insignificance? Could it be merely philosophical: a reaffirmation of my belief in a primordial and overarching meaninglessness -- Derrida's "impossible"? The religious too, I must admit, are wont to prostrate themselves before the large and unknowable (though their versions exude meaning). A matter of temperament? Of the spirit? Clouds are building. Rain.
First port: Buenaventura, Colombia. The plan was to avoid Colombia -- orange, "high risk," on my Pinkerton "World Risk Map" (so, for that matter, are Guatemala and El Salvador). But the danger in the case of this particular town seems, based on discussions with officers and crew, to be confined to getting mugged, perhaps at knife point, on the rough street between port and town, and that risk can apparently be eliminated by the simple step of taking a taxi past that street. I take a taxi past that street and find a town dressed in dirty whites, a couple of boats permanently aground on the beach, shacks on stilts in the middle of a pier in the water. Why did I expect South America to be better off than Central America? Because the countries are larger? I asked the taxi driver to take me to the tourist area. He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. January 20.
The ship was supposed to leave at 10 a.m. Another taxi has me back, to be safe, before 9:30 -- this visit to Colombia, outside the dock area, limited to about 45 minutes. But we're still here at 11. Policia on board. Had my cabin thoroughly searched for drugs, in Colombia of all places. The shoreline as we pull out has greens -- some bright, some deep -- that don't look at all shabby. These beauties at least are not apportioned according to wealth.
(See "Travelers' Ears," LonelyPlanet.com)
Spend about 40 minutes in the afternoon lost in the romance of some unknown isle that glides, daybreak-slow, past portside, lost, at least, in the romance of trying to capture that romance. An instant video -- six hours of work later. Gorgona Island (islands? Gorgonilla?), a Colombian National Park.
(See the video experiment: "The Romance of the Unknown.")
Oh, the loudnesses of a ship: the pulsings of the screw as it shoves back the waters (making malted milk out of the otherwise dark-blue sea), the continuous snore of the engines, the various little clicks and clatters of imperfectly secured latches or coffee cups -- each, like conga players in the park, finding its own variation on the basic rhythm. Now that you've made your way to a place where you can't survive on your own, you're alert, like a fetus, to changes in sound -- alert always more than you know, as you are, equally inescapably, to changes in tilt or roll.
This ship's purpose is to move containers. Nineteen people (plus me) are on board to help. (That's many, many fewer than when I last shipped out more than thirty years ago. The most memorable character I met then was the gay, before that term was familiar, radio operator. Now, of course, there is no radio operator, just a couple of satellite phones on the bridge; and the officers themselves throw out the lines.) We live and, for the most part work, on seven decks squeezed in a narrow pile, between stacks of containers, atop the engine room -- from the office and laundry room on the "Upper," really main, deck to the Bridge. Everyone except me has a title -- Steward, Second Officer. I don't know anyone by name. Chief Engineer says he tries to spend an hour each day sitting in the quiet of the bow.
Yet, in another sense my rumbling, vibrating cabin is among the most silent of the places I've lived. No phone, no Internet, no visitors, besides the policia -- this ship a great haven of white noise. Everyone else has shifts to fill, tasks to complete -- often at odd hours (whenever, for example, the tide is high enough for us to maneuver in or out of a couple of these shallow ports). It's similar to spending a week living as a guest in a factory. Occasionally Mr. Stephens (Is this formality a cultural or professional variation?) is alone in the officers mess. Sometimes my dinner companions lapse into German. I have had some interesting conversations, however, with the obviously well-traveled Chief Engineer. After breakfast on Sunday, January 21, I walk up to the bow and finally see a flying fish, first sign, besides the apparent well being of our small escort of seagulls, that there's life under there.
Was there anywhere humans were more hungry for signs than at sea? Now, however, we plow straight ahead -- all located and plotted -- and flying fish, halos around the moon, stars, presumably even albatrosses, are just diversions. You can't learn the future from them, experts say.
We sit, engines off, here more or less on the Equator, waiting for a pilot or high tide or both. Following Sunday "dinner" -- steak, wine and our first sweet -- and while those engines were still on, Chief Engineer provided a tour of the Engine Room. Another opportunity to feel satisfyingly small, watching this huge, black machine, surrounded by dozens of gray or black assistant machines (to cool or mix or pressurize), turn a foot thick axle and then, not included in this tour, the water-churning screw.
(See the video experiment: "Ways of Looking at Our Passage Through a Mostly Calm Sea.")
Sitting outside this evening, watching the water as it, for a change, stands more or less still, I grow increasingly disappointed in the absence of fish. I realize that they generally prefer to hang out below the inky surface. But I have had occasion to see some of the air-breathing kind on previous voyages -- albeit longer, albeit long ago. Those Japanese tuna nets? How could they do this to me?
Deafness: Just today learn, from the Chief Engineer, that a rather sharp divide runs through this troop of German officers. He and the Chief Officer are West Germans. The rest -- including the Captain, who is from Berlin -- East Germans. Oh. The things you miss not speaking a language.
Progress on the fish front. The Filipino crew members have taken advantage of our anchorage off shore to catch, from the deck, two four-foot-long squid, one of which I watch them, with great curiously, dissect.
Second port: Guayaquil, Ecuador. Ok, I'm charmed. This is more what I expected. More stop lights than I've seen since Houston, though still a great excess of armed guards. Museums (none of which I visit), parks (few of which I miss), a natty waterfront. Wanted to do a video showing all the different and contradictory conclusions it is possible to come to while walking down one street. Here's my street: 9 de Octubre, which runs from river to river, through the heart of Guayaquil. (On October 9, 1820, Guayaquil, with the support of Simon Bolivar, declared independence from Spain.) Spend the whole morning there -- stealing shots of the poor, the old, the young; photographing Pizza Huts and anti-Pizza Huts; allowing, in my enthusiasm, the equatorial sun too much access to my skin. Then I talk to the radio folk and my mother. I check. I purchase a two-day old New York Times, though I had been content not to read of this inauguration. I walk some more and see a park crawling with dozens of sometimes-yard-long, head-nodding, entirely tamed iguanas. I too have learned to allow myself to be fed: Although we don't depart until 22:00, earliest, I return to the ship for dinner. January 22.
Reason to travel around the world: Because previously you had never even heard of Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. Lonely Planet writes of the rivalry between the more conservative quitenos and the liberal, socialist guayaquilenos. No problem choosing sides.
I see. I write. Therefore I exist? I heartily recommend life as a passenger on a freighter, especially a freighter manned (no problem in this circumstance using that word) by Germans and Filipinos, should you ever need to think a lot, write a lot, talk to yourself a lot. Conversations with a laptop.
January 23. A second flying fish. Do see lots of oil platforms off the southern coast of Ecuador, though. Turns out one of my shipmates, though he has certainly been around, has never seen the iguanas in that park. He specializes in what's known hereabouts as "nightlife." I know that entails restaurants. I know that entails bars....
I'm gonna miss this big old womb! After foraging and searching for shelter all the way down Central America, it has been nice to settle in this two-room cabin and reconcile myself to three regular, and pretty decent, German meals a day. Of course, some of the fellows here, some of the Filipino fellows at least, don't see it quite that way. A chat with Steward, who serves my meals and takes care to these cabins: He left a wife and year old daughter home when he signed on for this ten month stretch. He shows me pictures of the toddler
Record, via satellite phone, Marketplace this afternoon. Fall into the cliché of feeling as if I'd talked to many but then could discuss it with no one. Feel my sense of authority, necessary if you're churning out like I'm churning out, slipping away, as I go over what I said, or neglected to say, in my rushed ten minutes with David B.
Peru. I watch the huge ship "park," under the guidance of a local pilot, at a container dock in Callao, outside of Lima. Woo! (And I was happy with myself when I managed to ease a Toyota into a tight spot on the Upper West Side..) I resume control of my passport. Driver waiting, though he must be paid. Stories about economic hardships. Have found, with his assistance, shelter downtown by nine. January 24.
It was a simple mistake; anyone could have made it. Some young man sitting on a curb asked me, in pretty-decent English, where I was from. I told him. I kept moving, thinking about what it means to have seen a city, wondering whether there is any sense in which my twenty-some-odd hours in Lima, some of them spent walking through the various impressive plazas and down the funky (can't escape that word) hawker-filled streets (none spent in museums), give me the right to say I have seen it. And then I stop at a corner, and guess who is standing next to me, calling me "amigo"? "It's very dangerous here," he says in that pretty-decent English. (Why do I think how dangerous people believe the world to be is a function of the activities they've been pursuing in it?) "You must be looking." I say, thanks. Then he's asking me for money, something about needing to take a bus. I have no change. I consider. Then I open my wallet and give him a buck. He starts talking about the need to cambio. I'm momentarily touched: He's decided this is too much. But no, he wants two, three times that, in Peruvian money. "My family," he's saying. I say, adios, put the dollar in my pocket and my hand on my wallet and start walking. But he's grabbing onto my elbow. "Please, mister, a dollar!" Now both hands pulling at me. "Please senior!" I'm saying. Won't stop. Louder now: Senior! Adios senior! Senior! Leave me alone! The tourist, the traveler, then rapidly dives into his hotel, people on the street looking on. He's not really shaken, but his colonial self (the oldest of his selves) has, hardly for the first time on this trip, assumed control of his psyche. January 25.
Anyone who believes the world by now moves in lock step into such fashions as khaki, shaved heads or the use of English is, as I turned out to be, badly in need of a trip to Latin America. I have seen, more or less, none of the first two, amazingly little of the latter. The global trend toward informality, however, is another matter entirely. A few suits do appear among the crowds on the street in Lima -- on the young and aggressive or the old and respectable. They look vestigial.
First airplane of the trip, over the Andes to Iquitos, Peru -- on the Amazon. I like the sound of that. Pleasant first taste of the tourist office at the airport. Assault by taxi drivers and tour pushers afterwards so unpleasant, however, that I end up asking nearby police to guide me through.
What exactly do I want to do with the Amazon? Well, gee, isn't this where some of the world's most "primitive" people are supposed to reside? Mr. Tourist Office Director (an interesting and industrious American from Texas) find me some? And, sure enough, he has a selection to offer. Want tattooed faces? The Mases are available. (The young recently gave up the tattoo thing.) There is a snag, though: Discovery Channel was just out there, but maybe I can handle having been scooped by them. Another snag: It'll require an airplane as well as a boat, and, unfortunately, the only airplane to there is on Tuesdays, and it's only Friday, January 26. Yon reporter, having a world to circle, can't handle that. How about a tribe whose language was (is?) dying? Not just any tribe: the Iquito, after whom this town is named. It will require only a speed boat, some fuel and a guide. This seems a reasonable thing to do with the the Amazon.
I know this appears all too random. Shouldn't I have researched tribes in the Peruvian Amazon for months before coming here? Certainly wouldn't have hurt. But I didn't really decide to visit the Amazon until I was well into Central America. And the truth is I have considerable confidence in the world's capacity to -- if I move far enough and keep my eyes open wide enough -- place necessary information and unimagined wonders before me.
The guide can be found waiting at tables at the local burger shop -- in the form of the truly resourceful Juan Maldenado. And we're off: To the harbor to find a boat and arrange to buy the fuel, to a library to read up on the tribe. (Semi-retired jungle guide Juan has a lot of scholar in him; I fear my scattered approach to research often disappoints him; at one point he insists on transcribing a list of fifty or so words in the Iquitos language into my notebook.) A stop, this one at my initiative, at the Voice of the Jungle radio station -- to which most of the Peruvian Amazon tribes tune in each morning to hear messages from town -- "Mr. Jose Perez, your daughter is here and she is okay." We'll shop and leave tomorrow morning. And, oh yeah, Juan knows a young photographer -- didn't catch what country he's from -- who has been looking for a short trip out to the jungle.
January 27. He's from Latvia. Twenty eight. Kaspars Ievins. Lived in NYC for some years. (First job, when he ran out of money, was as cashier at a Village pizza place; his first customer asked him for "a napkin"; having no idea what that word meant, Kaspars offered him salt, sugar, a cup, everything but; the customer complained; and he was fired.) Kaspars does nothing to damage my theory that some of the world's bravest, most interesting people are to be found out here on the road. Blond hair down to his shoulders, which he unties, peacock-like, when young women are present. It is hard to imagine two hairdos more exotic in these parts.
Money -- mostly my money -- for rice, for spices, for water, for fuel. And then, with the old boat's big engine shouting (I stuff tissue into my ears), we're off, on and up tributaries and tributaries of tributaries: Nanay, Pintoyacu -- just little blue lines on maps of the Amazon system, but they flood off into the jungle wide as my Hudson. Only visible wildlife: small, fishing birds and, yes, my constant companions, the buzzards. Only visible habitations: thatch-roofed huts. Only means of transport, save the occasional slow river-bus: dugout canoes; they paddle from the front. We stop to try to buy some fish from two guys with two boats. The fish are covered with flies. Sometimes it rains and we pull a blue tarp over our bodies and, when the drops start to sting, our heads. Takes us six hours by speed boat. (The river-bus requires sixteen.) This is good. Around here wildness, authenticity is measured by boat hours from the Amazon.
"Dream a dream with me."
San Antonio -- center of what remains of Iquito life. A bunch of huts. A couple of foot bridges built by the government. A school. Juan buys us a live chicken for dinner. Asks women in one hut to cook it up with the rice and spices. One fellow inquires whether we want him to go out to kill a crocodile for us for breakfast. Okay. Kaspers eagerly hops into his canoe. But they return hours later empty-handed. We'll sleep on the floor of the chief's hut. Kind of like camping out, except the snakes you're afraid of stepping on, if you have to go at night, are more dangerous. (Juan warns that they killed a big one on the path last night.) Quiet after the chief finishes telling his tales -- except for the animals. Dark, when it gets dark. Early to bed, on the wood floor under a mosquito net, but there are no mosquitos. I'll have plenty, plenty to write. I don't go at night.
(See "Found Adventure," LonelyPlanet.com.)
And early, well before dawn, the household starts to rise. And a chicken is pecking around my head. And I decide not to buy some recently-shot sloth-like creature for breakfast. We meet the mayor, who still shows the effects of a party from the night before. We meet elders. We meet young ones. Kaspers and I get stared at a lot.
This is good, "primary" (never-been-chopped-down) jungle, Juan says. We're really far. If it doesn't rain (Rain brings out the snakes), we can go for a walk in this jungle. But later Juan says we can't go for a walk: Some people have told him there are already too many snakes, and he hasn't brought his antidotes. But then Juan returns with a lithe young man, carrying a shotgun, saying this guy says the snakes aren't bad. And, with the young man, the gun and two machetes, we set off into the jungle. When I'm not feeling scared, I'm feeling brave. We see acres of authentic slash-and-burn agriculture (yams). We enter deep, dark, shiny, humid, noisy jungle. We stop and listen a lot and look down and stay very alert. We see no snakes. We see no wildlife at all except a lovely, little blue bird. (It has started to rain, which, Juan says, quiets the monkeys and other creatures.) It feels, for the first time in my life, like real jungle. I love being here. I'll be back.
Another four hours in the boat -- downriver. More rain. More sun. Another village for a soda. January 28. I pay vague attention to the predictably boring Super Bowl that evening in the Gringo Bar, Iquitos, Peru, on the Amazon.
"The Best Kept Secret in the World." That's the title of the video, Gerald Mayeaux, the dedicated Tourist Office guy, has had made. Me, I think Iquitos is a fine place. "Highly recommended" for those looking for a jungle holiday. You can put together all sort of adventurous excursions here. You can also do a couple of real touristy things. My last day there, I decide I'd better, given my research interests, do one of those things: see some "natives" in "native costumes." I hire a boat by myself. Arrive at the site to which the Boros Indians have moved, for this purpose. They wander in wearing bark shorts or skirts, some necklaces or headgear, nothing else. I pay, still by myself, more than I should pay. They dance. I join them for a couple of highly rhythmic numbers. I manage to feel both exploitative and exploited. The joke, of course, is that the Boros change back into jeans and T-shirts as soon as we tourists leave. January 29. I buy a hammock for the boats down the Amazon.
(See "Tourists and Half-Naked Dancers," LonelyPlanet.com.)
Actually don't need a hammock on the first boat -- a one-day, "super-rapido," log-dodger, mail-carrier, down from Iquitos to the "three frontiers" area. January 30. Exit the small, fast boat and suddenly -- its always too suddenly -- I and Scottish acquaintance find ourselves dealing with one of those frontiers. Switch from mostly useless Spanish to entirely nonexistent Portuguese. Local taxi drivers and boat drivers tell us lies -- out-and-out lies -- on when the next boat down to Manaus leaves; the idea is apparently to convince us to take a boat taxi to the next town. I lose my sunglasses climbing into and out of car taxi on the way to immigration office. Feel, probably wrongly, as if I'm getting ripped off on a money exchange. Cheap hotel in Tabatinga, Brazil, for which, by this point, I'm feeling no affection. Leticia, Colombia, right across the border, much more pleasant for dinner and quick, "please," after-hours email that evening.
(See "Danger and Lies," LonelyPlanet.com.")
Next morning, January 31, find the boat down the Amazon to Manaus, Santo Antonio de Borba III, and find the taxi driver from the previous day waving something at me: my sunglasses. A sign? Can't help it if I'm lucky. (Julius Caesar: "The omens will be as favorable as I wish them to be.") Hammock set up on middle deck of nearly empty boat. Deck will be transformed into a jungle of hammocks -- thirty or forty of them -- by the time we get going. Record a conversation with Marketplace from pay phone near the dock.
What a poky boat! It stalls. Men climb down into the engine. It gets going. It stalls. This boat is not satisfying my desire for motion. What a huge river -- wider than any river I had ever seen even before we entered Brazil! You see thatch huts. And then, as we penetrate further into Brazil, sheet metal replaces the thatch. You see, always, wood, logs dotting the brown, fast-flowing water. At night someone, on the deck on top of the wheelhouse, scours the river with a flashlight, in search, presumably, of particularly big floaters. More lightning than lights to be see at most times. No billboards. February 1.
The hammock life. What a relaxing ride! You swing in your hammock for a while. You walk around a bit, stare at the big river. At some point you squeeze in in front of a spoon and a bowl for a sitting of lunch or dinner. (The food's safe and good, a German husband and wife, who have been riding boats like this, assure; the fact that she's skipping meals because of stomach trouble weakens the point, however.) Not much conversation, since most of your dinner companions speak Portuguese. In fact, you're getting used to eating without talking or reading. After lunch, it often rains. They lower the blue tarps to keep the Amazon wet from coming in. You swing some more. When we're in port, we try to watch our stuff -- much of which is locked down anyway. (I wear my camera constantly.) The days end early, and you stretch out -- diagonally to minimize the "hump" -- on the same hammock to sleep. The land that hurry-up forgot.
Just sitting or sleeping, low-spark thinking. So much blessedly out of my control. It's raining, and I can't even walk to the bow. Boring book that I don't have much interest in reading. Just sitting.
Our little nonnative gang turns out to include, along with the American and Scot and that German couple, a 28-year-old Israeli couple and a French businesswoman, who has spent many months in Colombia. By the end of the trip, we're playing cards and drinking beer. And in the evening on the Amazon I'm learning about Israeli politics. The German man, in his sixties, had escaped from the East as a youth, come to America for a spell and ridden his bike from Munich to Israel. Further support for my theory. The boat's stalls are prolonged by an increasingly dead battery. Soon we're, in essence, begging for jumps from passing boats or people on shore. Captain seems remarkably calm through all this. I'm less impressed by his cool, however, after I see him up on the top-deck bar at 10 a.m. Israeli man and I fashion a fishing rig out of some of his army emergency gear to pass the stalls. Catch nothing. See two dolphins.
Shower in smelly bathroom doesn't work. Turns out one's body is supposed to be cleaned thusly: one drops a pail in the Amazon, fills a basin with the water and pours it over one's head in a smelly bathroom. I do this (only time I take off my camera on the boat). Feels great, like a kind of baptism.
The music in machines. Now playing, in the boat's old, stall-prone engine, on February 3, 2001, at 9:09 p.m. (or so, we're a little hazy on time zones around here): some sweet, scratched song of the American plains. Breathing the candied, heavily oxygenated Amazon air. Content to be drifting with the drifters, traveling with the travelers. Breeze blowing over my chest. Thanks to the stalls, the dead battery, we arrive about seven hours late in Manaus, on Sunday night, February 4.
Big Manaus, pop. one million, bit much for hammock swinger like me. Ready to take another boat on down the Amazon to Belem, until I try finding an airplane out of Belem. Big bucks. Israeli guy puts a thought inside my head: Flights cheaper our of Caracas. Of course, I could simply fly out of Manaus, but, I explain, then I wouldn't be drawing a decent line on my map of the world. From Iquitos all the way down the Amazon to the Atlantic at Belem makes for a nice line right across South America. From Iquitos to Manaus up into Venezuela and near the coast at Caracas makes for a pretty okay line -- a kind of South American loop-de-loop, South American roundabout. Helps that I might get to see world's longest waterfall. (Guys who are hung up on drawing lines also like to see stuff that has earned such designations.) Israeli friend asks whether knowing you're doing something silly -- like drawing a line on a map -- shouldn't free you from doing it. He notes that such an assumption lies behind psychoanalysis. Well, I don't consider drawing this line to be entirely silly: If I grab a plane anytime I get bored I'm not going to get much of a feel for the curve of the earth. Nonetheless, I'm not surprised to be an example of someone who does what he half believes doesn't need to be done. In fact I have been known to celebrate a talent for carrying on with the partially absurd. Has to do with irony.
I'm drawing my pretty-okay line with the assistance of an overnight bus from Manaus north to Boa Vista. February 6. Nothing to see along the way, someone had told me, "just jungle." Oh. Jungle, unfortunately, difficult to see from a bus window at night. I, consequently, allow myself to relax. Two movies in English, with Portuguese subtitles, though I seem to be only fellow on board who speaks English. I allow myself to sleep. Sleepy us exiled from the bus in the middle of the night in the middle of the jungle to watch -- takes me awfully long to figure out what's going on -- portable fumigators blast clouds of smoky mosquito poison into cars, the cabs of trucks, into our bus. Anti-Dengue-Fever campaign. Presumably real world never seems to have that much difficulty looking, as it certainly does at this moment, surreal. Right before dawn bus spends some time going back and forth and way back some more in order to extricate itself from the mud. I got a rash or some bites on my ankle and up.
Bus dubbed "Marcopolo" and made by Volvo. Dawn. Someone will have to explain to me why people close the curtains on a bus. Someone will have to explain to me why there are curtains on a bus. There's a company, I note, called Amazonia Cellular.
We arrive in Boa Vista, Brazilian town near border with Venezuela, on February 7, and I have some hours to kill. My ability to reject almost all the possible eat-something alternatives as they present themselves -- that one seems a little too dirty, I'm not sure I want a sandwich -- eventually extinguishes that time.
Shorter bus ride -- on into Venezuela. I like this bus, which goes slow and stops and enters into the go-slow-and-stop life of the Indian countryside along the way. We wait for about ten minutes at a small watering hole while the bus driver helps a disabled guy he had carried on reassemble his hand-peddled bike. I watch men walk in and out of the the outhouse, tugging at their flies. Cerveza -- the great lubricant of this dusty, shuffling, no problema, slow-turning life -- is flowing. Two tan bulls in back of a truck. I like the fact that it is day. I like the friendly driver. I have a pretty decent window, though no bus, train or plane can match the view I got from my Toyota. I like moving. But I've made that clear.
Humans tend to thin out near the borders. Return of the thatch roof. We are now officially in terra indigena, sign says. A stately, pure white heron looks out of place by a dusty pond. Lumps of gray-brown stone suddenly begin to decorate the otherwise-featureless landscape like -- if you'll forgive an attempt at writing -- unevenly spread elephant marmalade. You have to wonder, on these arid, scrub-tree range lands, just an all-night drive from the Amazon River, as you have to wonder on so much of this planet, whether it was always thus or whether the vegetative clothing was ripped or burned off of these patches of earth by members of our species during one scheme or boom or another. Periodic burnt-brown fields. At one point the smoke gets thick enough to interfere with my precious view. Our case does not look good.
I settle under the wing of an American-speaking diamond cutter, who claims life is good near the border because one economy or the other is usually doing okay. Now its Brazil's. But I have arrived in doing-not-so-okay Venezuela. Santa Elena de Uairen -- a lazy, little tourist town. (And isn't laziness and littleness what we want from our tourist towns, or I am just getting old.) Diamond cutter finds me a hotel, a money changer. I walk around the town, once, twice. American-speaking tourist guide halfheartedly tries to pitch me, ends up joining me for a good, cheap dinner, at a place he recommends. The beer bottles in Venezuela are little, but I like this town.
I have in my head the notion that I'll catch a little plane from Santa Elena to Angel Falls and Canaima. (Gran Sabana, near Santa Elena, will be added to that long list of places I'll have to return to see someday, someway.) Then, the plan goes, I'll fly directly on to Cuidad Bolivar. Few problems with the plan: (1) Can't find a tour agent in town early on February 8; got to head out to the airport. I grab a taxi and head out to the airport. (2) Airport is closed for the morning. (3) It would cost, I finally come to understand, more than five hundred dollars to hire a plane myself for this excursion, if a plane can takeoff. I watch this plan collapse, I should add, with considerable equanimity. I believe it is fair to say that I was not previously known for excesses of equanimity. Have I gained something of spiritual consequence from the gift of all those delays? I grab another taxi and head back in to the bus station. Grab a bus for Cuidad Bolivar, from which it is apparently possible to get a plane to Canaima and the world's longest waterfall.
I'm getting smart: Plop myself in the first seat, on the opposite side from the driver, on this bus. This means I can, as long as I keep pulling the curtain to the side and lean down to peer under the dark sun shade, see in the direction we were designed to see, the way car drivers get to see: forward. I see, for the first time, round, thatch-roofed houses. This, like the thumbs up in Brazil, I decide to label a cultural difference. I see some of the flattop tepuis (eroded remains of an ancient plateau), for which the area is known. I smell (It takes me a while) the result of the fact that an old man sitting in the other front seat is getting, repeatedly, "car sick." I talk with a German physics professor and outdoorsman on the bus, who speaks enthusiastically about his recent canoe adventures all across the US and Canada but stumbles only with great reluctance into a conversation about his profession. (He is suspicious of the notion that particle physics is the ultimate physics but professes to be enjoying a year, this conversation with me being apparently the only exception, of not thinking about physics. I myself have little interest in the exercise of not thinking: Don't think about elephant marmalade!) I see, once we reach more urbanized areas further north, the most modern highways I've seen since leaving Texas. In fact, as the day dies, it is only while passing, somewhere, a thin band of fire stretching all across the wide median that I'm reminded that I'm not in the US, reminded that I am, as usual, somewhat lost in a somewhat inexplicable world.
Somewhat lost. Move this fast, and it's hard to feel as if you are really anywhere.
I look up at a TV screen and find myself seeing more than I want to spend my time seeing of the bad, dubbed, bus-VCR movies: the balletic grace (Like I know from ballet!) of a Jackie Chan movie. I feel diminished by being merely a passenger. I feel diminished by something about the cheap emotionalism of these movies. I would like to think cheap is the key word here. But this feeling of discomfit that takes over, this feeling that I am some sort of bus-riding, far-from-home, isolated, presumptuous-enough-to-hold-forth-on-this-and-that fool, may be due simply to a movie-inspired immersion in emotionalism of any sort. Normally and more comfortably, the point may be, I use ideas as my map. "Clear, no doubt, somehow..." This bus, like all of them, is late. It is night. Have I stopped seeing?
Cuidad Bolivar. Taken under another American-speaking wing -- some gentle guy concerned that I get right into a taxi. I have a flight arranged out to Angel Falls before I even turn the key of my hotel room. Dinner with the German guy, who happened to land in the same hotel. I ask him only about his canoe trip.
February 9. I'm in the little airport at Cuidad Bolivar, and the electricity is out. And the small Cesna that is to take yet another German guy, Fritz, and me into Canaima National Park and up to Angel Falls is nowhere to be seen. My equanimity slips a bit, despite the fact that while waiting I manage to arrange a relatively cheap flight home from Caracas. Fritz and I pace and sit and stand and wait. The lights don't go on but a plane finally arrives into which is loaded some wire mesh, lots of plastic bottles of soda, two women, one unhappy child and the two of us. Fritz's greater girth earns him, to my chagrin, the copilot's seat.
I have been priding myself in my increased bravery, and it is a fact that it only takes ten minutes of flight in this one-propeller plane for me to stop continually scouting for emergency landing sites and trying to convince myself that my family would do okay after my death. After that I do it only intermittently. I'm never, if truth be told, entirely comfortable with the notion that my life is dependent on the smooth functioning of one small, old engine. Our pilot, however, is entirely comfortable. Indeed, he spends most of the flight reading a newspaper.
We land on a dirt runway -- a silver mining town -- and lose the other passengers and the cargo. Then on to Canaima and a remarkably dense collection of spectacular waterfalls and a short hike and a swim. At one point I hear what sounds like pure American -- first time in a couple of weeks -- and go up to the source. Young woman responds indignantly that she is Canadian, not American.
Then it's back in the plane -- Fritz and I each incessantly videoing -- for a flight through an astonishing canyon up to thin, cause it's the dry season, Angel Falls. 979 meters. 807 meters of uninterrupted fall. 16 times higher than Niagara. And it is -- what word will do here -- majestic in its pencil-sketched, long-lined, abandoned, impossible fall off the tabletop tepuis, through the sun haze and into the steep, roadless green canyon. And we fly by a few times. And I am lost in an ecstasy of seeing -- a quiet, mostly internal celebration of the privilege of being in the presence of a great wonder.
And to this breathtaking moment in the movie I've been watching, the great movie of this world, there is a clarifying, intensifying, luxurious soundtrack. On the bus from Santa Elena the local-music tapes had been replaced, for a spell, by some American collection of Whitney always loving yo-oo-oo-oo-ou and Imagine and Harry Nilsson and of course this was enough to make the landscape dance (a kind of ballet I do know from) for me. And of course there were my tapes on my long drive -- inspiring all of Central America to prance and preen for me. And now I am listening to the music of another engine. This precious little airplane engine singing over and over, like some otherworldly chorus, a song almost as majestic as the views, a song purer, because it is this way with music, than the views: "It shines for us." I am hearing this. "It shines for us." For whom? "It shines for us." This always perfect -- because I am only imagining it in the middle of the surrounding precious engine roar -- song. For whom? We lovers? We humans? The rivers shine as the reflected sun glides over them. The land shines in that sun haze. Clouds too. We hang -- the pilot, Fritz and I -- here in the sky. I hear and see. I hear to see. I hear music. I see wonders.
And, no, I do not believe in signs, in secret passageways connecting present and future, which might indicate whether my trip will be a delight or a disaster. Instead I content myself with the usual, rough, stupid, cause-and-effect ladders -- pack light and things will be easier, stay out of Colombia and things will be safer-- the ladders we spend our lives climbing.
But I do believe in wonders. I do believe that the world exhibits prodigies and beauties that, while they do not exceed explanation, continually stretch my own feeble efforts at acknowledging and explaining. And I feel, how to put this, what I would have to call a spiritual joy in that excessiveness, in being so often stretched. It is in this way, primarily, that I have delighted in the Americas.
On the long bus from Cuidad Bolivar to Caracas the next day, February 10, the drivers won't let me push aside the curtain to look forward. So, grumpily, I move to a seat in the back. Everybody, everywhere else on this bus, it turns out, is riding with their curtains closed. Well, here is a cultural difference about which I am entirely intolerant. The whole bus a dark cave except for the crack of light let in by the only foreigner. And at one point the driver actually walks back and asks me to close my curtain. Why? Naps? The air-conditioning? But I am prepared to make my stand here. I will not ride a bus if I can't open the curtain, if I can't see. Even if the road is surrounded mostly with scrub trees and brown and green grasses and high-tension wires, I will be alert -- it is a cause, a mission -- to the world's wonders.
Caracas, at sunset is looking good to me, in part because the guidebooks presented it as uninteresting. I ask at the hotel whether it is safe to walk out on the nearby square. Safe until eight p.m., I am told. It is seven p.m. I walk out on the nearby square. And very early the next morning catch a plane for a quick visit home.
The Journal Continues....Africa: Nomadic Wonderings
Beginning of this part of journal
The Americas: Signs and Wonders (Part 1)
"...Because there was nowhere to go but everywhere," J.K., On the Road.