On a normal map you will not find it, unless you could find a hole on it… Of course, on Google Maps you find everything, such as 2°30’ South by 56°30’ West, about 350 miles from Manaus. It is overcast but has not been raining for a while; at 90F that rain would, they say, be welcome.
At 7am this morning – dawn had already arrived because yesterday the captain had decided to turn the clock back one hour – the noise of the thrusters gave away that we were moving laterally, which means that we were had started our landing, somewhere out of the center of the river. I had planned to go on land by eleven but, after a mouthful of bacon and eggs, I had gathered enough energy to think this through, rationally: later meant warmer and warmer meant more chance for rain. I decided to pack and go.
At 8 the tender was shuttling me to the shore. Think of the Amazon shore as a coastline because, even more than after 600 miles, this giant river has not gotten any narrower. To think that maximum water levels come by the end of April, one cannot even start to imagine its size.
Boca de Valeria, was branded a “stop in the jungle”; it is a village of 80 people. From these eighty inhabitants we immediately discovered six, bobbling in their little canoe off the open door of our tender that was still moored at the Prinsendam’s lower deck exit, about a mile out of the shore. As a matter of fact, the seventh person was hidden in the tummy of the young lady who, balancing on the rim of her canoe, was peddling colorful necklaces. With the passing of time, more floating vendor families arrived; I counted five and, confirming Darwin’s ideas, they were fighting at every tender departure to have the first, and best, place to get to the visitors from afar.
The reference that I made to Santa Claus yesterday, I’d like to withdraw. After the spectacle that I witnessed, it is a rendering that is too cynical and too comical as well. Indeed, at the green inlet, with green tree wall behind it, the entire village had emptied to greet us – all the children in front, the boys nervously inquisitive and the girls shyly giggling.
When I state that the image of Santa Claus is too cynical, it is because these youthful boys and girls merrily gather around the landed visitors, taking them unceremoniously by the hand to walk them along the only path to the village. Cynicism doesn’t fit that quasi-bucolic picture. When I state that the image of Santa is too comical, it is because their enormous and boisterous Expectations have nothing comical. It is all very, very real. It is when the tourist and the person in me have difficult conversations.
Old people are nowhere to be seen. Since I do not think that there are a lot of senior citizens’ homes around this neck of the woods, I assume that they are in loftier spheres (and I don’t mean traveling the world on a cruise ship either!). Around here youth is king, and little princes dominate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ratio between say 20-40 year olds, on the one hand, and 0-12 year olds on the other, is at least five to one. It is a stunning fact.
Some kids, usually boys, try to please, explicitly and purposefully, be that by their loud enthusiasm or by their tricks with all kinds of animals (monkeys, turtles in various sizes, a small boa constrictor, parrots, etcetera). Others, girls mostly, give a shy impression as they have to showcase traditional garb, plumes included and seem to wonder inside why they have to parade for all these strangers…
The landing area is packed when a sloop arrives. As the procession moved inland – not unlike the Pied Piper – the numbers dwindled quickly. Some of the passengers couldn’t muster the terrain or missed energy, others just hung around the first stalls with handicrafts. As I went on, I caught a very simple wooden church, somewhat elevated, but not on poles, as the rest of the village, but on a concrete foundation with 15 steps leading to its entrance. I climbed them and ran into an American lady. “Cool isn’t it?” she volunteered and she meant it, literally. I thought that it was cool as well: notwithstanding the white plastic chairs, an atmosphere of shared joy emanated from the altar. Above it hung a white rectangular cloth with “Feliz Natal” printed on it in dancing, rainbow-colored letters. As I left, looking at the visitors on the path below, 3Fetisj Naval” flashed through my head. What’s in a name?
Giving money in exchange for a picture, the brochure says, is not a good idea. In that way you create a vulture-effect. It is true too, of course. You can’t blame them though. All of sudden the scripted fairy tale changes into harsh reality: it is all part of a logical survival strategy. And yet, they all stay friendly! Presumably, they are not familiar with Spinoza but there is no doubt that they exemplify the “Natura naturata” to the tee.
An 80 year old Norwegian, whom I had acquainted yesterday on the Piranha boat, was also part of my platoon. Taking pictures here doesn’t sit well with my heart, he said, and moved his hand up and down his sternum. I thought and felt the same, I replied. And we saw eye to eye.
Prinsendam, Saturday January 15, 2011, 1600hrs
In a Kind of Paradise at 2°N by 56°W