It takes two nights and two days to get to Belèm from Alter do Chaõ. We had to sail all the way downstream to Macapà, then further north to escape the Amazon via the narrow channel in the silt deposits, the “ Barre”, to subsequently turn due East and, finally, south to arrive in Belèm.
Rather than (being happy) to “escape” the Amazon, I was left with a rather mellow feeling of having to leave. Amazonas, its unfathomable river and unforgettable people, have surprised and have charmed me. I can’t even separate these two sentiments from one another because they seem like identical twins. This river is unimaginably grand, powerful, inviting, protective, idyllic, beautiful, nourishing, and full of fairylike light and budding life. There is no end to it. And the indigenous people carry many of these characteristics with them, for all to see. They are friendly, joyous, ready to help, energetic, positive, xenophile, well fed and, I believe, generally happy. Just as my surprise and my attraction are intricately interwoven, are these people and their river: tied together at the navel, they feed on each other, and are truly inseparable. I must admit that I was spontaneously moved when the river pilot bid an arm-waving farewell to captain and watching passengers, as we were approaching the equator once again.
The yellow water from the Amazon would remain with us for all the countless hours, as we were crossing its mouth from Northwest to Southeast, although these waters appeared to be more of a sea than of a river. During two nights and a day we would be plying the waves around the equator (from 0°N, to 1°N, back to 0°S and then 1°S). As the skies remained shrouded in all shades of grey, and while the rain doused even the waves, this was a good time to check out a few things, such as right and left screwing water.
Indeed, even though we all live on the same earth, our worlds are different. Take for instance the movement of water in a sink, or in a bathtub, or in a toilet. When there is no plug to block it – from that perspective a toilet is easiest as, for reasons that need no explaining, it is not plugged – the water drains in the Northern Hemisphere turning in the direction of the hands of a clock: it screws right, so to speak. The whirlpools on the Niagara River are a harrowing grander-scale example of this natural phenomenon. I also did this experiment in Johannesburg. And, sure enough, I could observe that the toilet water drained there as well – at least in my hotel room, for in Soweto one might have witnessed different outcomes – but, as it lies in the Southern Hemisphere, the liquids screw in the opposite direction. How about the equator then?
Everybody can rest assured: it runs straight to the drainage hole, as predicted by the theory: the Coriolis force is close to zero. I will check this again when I am at the South Pole to report on the angular speed as it will be disappearing. Stay tuned when we report about the vortices from the depths of Antarctica.
Meanwhile the satellite and internet connections from the ship were down for more than a day: snow in New Jersey was said to be the cause. Plain amateurism, on all fronts – from technical infrastructure, all the way to administration and user friendliness, that was the obvious reason. When my cell Phone lighted up at 6am, I knew that what we conveniently call civilization, was around the corner or, at least, somewhere along the distant and dark shores. We anchored in the Amazon about 20km upstream from Belèm, because of shallow waters.
Instead of using our own tenders, they had chartered “cagey boats”. This is the English name for boats with bring-your-own-hammock-for-sleeping-comfort arrangements. This time around, our Brazilian skippers had put simple plastic chairs on deck. Apart from sliding over the deck, some also spread all four legs in response to too many Western kilos, pounds or meaningful fractions of tons, as they were plunking down on their seats. The Brazilians sailors took it all in stride. We docked in Quajarapé. The way that the various boats and captains jostled, pushed, and rammed each other, was a biblical sight. Since we were the biggest by length and (total) weight we won the nerve-racking fight after half an hour on points – no other boat had sunk!
Belèm, capital of Parà state – bigger than France, is, with 1.5 million inhabitants, the biggest Indian city in Brazil. At the other side of the Amazon, who has just absorbed the mighty Tocatins River, lies the island Marajó, the biggest river island in the world. About the size of Switzerland, it has twice as many inhabitants; 98% of them are water buffalo.
While I had a chance to take a picture of all missing Amazonian jungle animals – in the Botanical Gardens from Belèm – and of a graceful and radiating church – the Igreja de la Santa Senhora de Nazaré – the landmark par excellence of this equatorial city is the market, named “Ver-o-Peso” (Check the Weight, an old Portuguese customs house). Today this market stretches along more than a mile of docks, measures in the neighborhood of 20 acres, and is covered by plastic roofs that resemble the tops of luxurious Arabian desert tents. Underneath the covers one finds a pasta of people and animals, and all kinds of raw, cooked or in between foodstuffs. On top of the roofs you find hundreds of fat vultures and, at a respectable distance, some hungry pigeons. Breughel would undoubtedly have loved to paint this late medieval scene.
This Ver-o-Peso, which, as the morning progresses, turns gradually into a full-fledged garbage belt, is an utterly comprehensive bucolic spectacle. In the middle of stands with meat, fish, vegetables, fruits – in various states of maturity, flanked by “impromptu restaurants, you find bustling life, primordial almost in its nature; it is a life that envelops the people and a life that the people have to embrace, without conscious reflection. For reflection there is definitely no space, no time and, presumably, no need. The “here and now”, the “hic et nunc”, absorbs everything and everybody.
An American visitor suggested that “a little more sanitation” wouldn’t hurt. I asked him where he would start? He shook his head, from left to right, a couple of times. All of sudden, in one subconscious logical associative loop, I thought of a fridge. Rather than perceiving it as a place to preserve food though, it appeared as a place where the American, as a symbol for Western society, had deposited his life, to preserve it as long as possible ….
Belèm is now a few hundred miles behind us already, as is the fabulous, inspiring Amazon region. From here on in we will discover the riches of a less traditional Brazil.
Prinsendam, Day 19 – Sunday Jan 23rd, 2011
Out of the rainy forests, towards the sandy beaches