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Into the Amazon

Brazil is a nut. Brazil is a wood. Brazil is a land. But it was not the nut that gave the country its name. This vast country, occupying all the eastern bulge of South America and stretching some 3,000 miles from East to west, was first called Vera Cruz, the True Cross, and was named so by th e young Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral, who discovered it by chance on a voyage to India on April 22, 1500. The natives called it Pindorama, Palm Tree Land. Each time a ship called on this coast it was loaded with Brazilwood logs. The traders who bought them, not knowing that the country from which they came already had a name, began to refer to it as the Land of the Brazilwood, and soon the country became known as Brazil.

It is a land of records. It has the largest river and the greatest system of waterways in the world. Amazon Waterway It is one of the few countries where man still has frontiers of exploration to push back. It is also a land of legends. One of the most romantic is the belief that there are lost Indian cities lying abandoned, and explorers from the eighteenth century onwards have been drawn in search of them.

Two degrees south of the Equator, in a region full of palm trees, is the city of Belem (Bethlehem), the gateway to the Amazon river. Belem was a boom town when Brazil supplied the world with natural rubber; the splendid buildings of that prosperous era still stand side by side with graceful churches and modern shopping centers. The climate is terribly hot and the humidity high. Rainfall averages between 60 and 100 inches a year, rising to as much as 160 inches.

The town of Belem started with the foundation of a fort by the Portuguese in 1616. Hot, dusty and mysterious, it is a city of contrasts, with its fine churches all built of stone shipped out from Portugal. Its Opera House is one of the finest in the world and is proud to have had Pavlova dance there on her way to the USA. The picturesque market, called Ver-o-Peso, at the end of the waterfront, is unique; early every morning sailing boats, with their bright-coloured sails, bring in all sorts of produce from far up the Amazon to be marketed. But above all Belem, as the gateway to the mighty Amazon, entices one up-river in the steaming heat to the jungle where the trees, bamboos and creepers are so thick and so tall that the sun’s rays do not pierce them till many hours after dawn.

Boarding I had nothing else to do but stand on the deck of the river boat and watch our departure from Belem to the west. Slowly the Amazon appeared between ship and quay, and the gap frew steadly wider and wider. By now it was growing dark and I watched the twinkling lights of Belem. Its harbour used by over 3,700 miles of river, a river that stretched its tentacles out on every side. It was a clear night and the white cathedral made a wonderful sight, but from the outline of the city it could just as well have been Quebec, or any other port, except for the tremendous blanket of humid heat that hung over us. The older men, small and thin with the cheekbones of Indians, sat on the hatch covers with eyes gazing out across a river they did not see. Once their forefathers had come down the coast from the jungle and there taken to clothes. Now the wheel had taken the full circle and they themselves were on their way back to the jungle.

As we journeyed up-river, small, narrow canoes manned by children kept shooting out from the bank clearings as though our boat were a magnet. When the canoes were within two yards or so from us, the children dropped their paddles and sat on the narrow bows, for they had come to bob up and down in the waves. They had lean, yellow faces with jet black hair cut straight across the eyebrows, and they sat there, bobbing up and down, enjoying their see-saw until the waves had passed on towards land and died away. Then they picked up their paddles again and returned to their dilapidated huts of bamboo and palm leaves on the bank. None of them can read or write. Their food is as wretched as it can be. Here, in a country where a branch will send out roots or bear fruits if it is merely stuck down in the soil, where nature is so prolific that countless fruits shower down from thousands of trees every square mile, here the people live on rice and beans, beans and rice, day in and day out. Perhaps occasionally there will be fish or fowl in the water in which the rice is cooked, but beans and rice and a handful of manioc flour sprinkled into the pot – that is their main meal from the cradle until their all too early death.

old boat After three days and nights of navigation in a wide brownish stream, with shores low and undistinguishable, the jungle closed in and I saw primitive man in his native place for the first time. Our river boat anchored to allow some of the men and their families, together with their strange bundles, to go ashore to start a new life in Amazonas. I, too, went ashore in one of the little canoes. The few houses on the bank were but square roofs on the fronds of the species of palm, upheld at each corner by poles seven feet high, had no sides and were quite open. Several children, quite naked, watched me walk towards one of the dwellings. A tray of manioc root was set in the sun to dry. Under a gourd tree was a heap of turtle shells. But most remarkable were the pets. A bunch of macaws ran in and out of the bushes. Looking up, I noticed an audience of monkeys. A sudden movement of mine set them off like fireworks.

To come upon a settlement on the Amazon is like a windfall at sea, but there at last was Santarem. In 1682, Jesuit missionaries founded a monastery there and the Portuguese built a fort, both powers seeking, each in its own fashion, to gain control of the same area. The three towns, Belem, Santarem and Manaus, are still the key points in life on the Amazon, marker flags that civilized man has placed at strategic points of that scarcely inhabited green expanse.

There is a chapter in the history of Santarem that gives it a special position in Amazonas. When the American Civil War ended it left 200 inhabitants of a small Dixie town feeling disappointed and bitter. With their slaves and implements they sailed to Santarem and settled there. These colonists have been absorbed into the local population, although traces of their influence can still be seen. Their descendants speak Portuguese and do not understand English; that is, in fact, the only case of an Anglo-Saxon colony letting itself be absorbed into a community among which it has settled.

It is almost impossible to conceive the vastness of the Amazonian untouched jungle forests. No one knows for sure how many different kinds of tree grow in them, or what unknown kinds of animals may be lurking beneath the thick roof of leaves; new insects and reptiles are continually being found. The jungle has remedies for fevers and diseases. We have a lot to learn from the Indians who live in Amazonas. They certainly know much about plants of which we are ignorant, and this could, therefore, prove a rewarding field of study. Amazonas is such an inconceivably huge district, the distances so tremendous and communications so primitive, that countless number of its riddles will remain unexplored for many years. It is this, rather that her more superficial attractions – a boa rustling in the undergrowth, a distantly growling jaguar – which is the true adventure of the Amazon.

The greatness of Manaus came with the rubber boom. In 1866, where before there had been an insignificant village, deep in the heart of the jungle, a modern town sprang up. Manaus, although over 1,000 miles from the sea, soon became the great distributing port and export centre for rubber, due to the fact that this part of the river affords a splendid harbour for shipping. As the huge black balls of raw rubber were carried down-river, so a stream of white men came up from the sea. A number of rubber barons of Manaus decided at the height of the rubber boom that they would make their town a cultural centre, as good as any in the old world. They ordered, among other builtings, an opera house to be built with Italian marble, Bohemian crystal and other fine materials shipped all the way from Europe. Today Manaus is quite a city, but there stands the famous Teatro Amazonas, its blazing gold and blue cupola visible from far and wide above the tops of the trees. It was built to rival Belem, but when the rubber boom ended Belem was saved by its harbour next to the ocean; Manaus had no such lifeline.

On leaving Manaus for the last and longest stretch of the journey, I had many opportunities for exploring the jungle and its clearings; often we stopped at a tiny, sleepy settlement where noise and liveliness sprang up as we appeared. A continual great nuisance were the mutuca flies; they are almost the same size and appearance as the blue-bottle. The mutucas would settle on my wrists and ankles and where each had fed there would be a wound from which the blood steadly trickled. Also in this region the pium mosquitos swarmed; tiny black insects which alight on the hands and face, perhaps a dozen at a time, and gorge themselves, though you may be unconcious of it. Where the pium feeds it leaves a dot of extravasated blood which remains for weeks.

It was night when we reached the huts which I knew to be the Cucui Mission, and I could hear a continuous low thundering of the rapids which lay only a few yards up-river. Here I was, at last, at the end of my journey, on the fringe of hostile Indian territory. I had great respect for the priest in charge, who, without fuss or show, just as though it was the natural thing to do, had sold all his possesions thirty-nine years ago and settled thousands of miles from civilization in order to try and help primitive people.

Since when the Portuguese discovered that the long tongue of muddy water which stretched from the North Coast of South America came from a mighty river, countless deadly struggles have happened between white men and Indians, for these primitive people cannot differentiate between those who come to plunder and those who come to help and teach them how to live. The Indians have learned, moreover, that firearms are not the only things to fear when the white man approaches. In his footsteps come diseases that have never been known in the jungle before and to which jungle dwellers have no resistance. Today one can still see in the Indian villages, and especially the larger ones like Cucui, natives who were maimed in punishment by the early rubber collectors. The hatred which this deed implanted deep within the souls of these primitive men keeps rising to the surface and impelling them to fanatical struggles whenever, through the years, the white man has made any attempt to approach or make friends with the tribes of the remoter parts.

At Cucui we could feel safe from an attack by the Indians only at night, for no Indian would dare to go out of the ring of fire in the dark. However primitive the Indian’s way of life, and however much we may have that seems wondeful to him, he would never change his lot for ours. We have so much to learn from them, for their knowledge of nature’s secrets is amazing. However badly one gets lost in the jungle, if one is lucky enough to have an Indian bearer, he will find his way to a river, even in terrain that is quite strange to him.

A few days later, when the sun was just rising, I stepped into our small boat, about to leave Cucui for the journey back to Manaus, and Rio de Janeiro. As the priest had said during one of our long talks, the pull of the Amazon is very strong and grows stronger as you leave it. Now it was pulling me and I was sorry to leave, for I felt that there was still so much to see, so much to learn. I had grown to love Amazonas and to look forward to the next bend in the river, which always revealed something new and unexpected: the wondeful scenery, the hidden waterfalls, orchids, hundreds of butterflies and the snakes banded orange and black.

I should remember all my life the white herons, standing on one leg in the shallow water. With their fine tail feathers they are far more the birds of the Amazon than the parrot and the toucan, commonly chosen to symbolise this river. The loveliest sight of all is when, towards sunset, the herons all make for the same tree. They come gliding in from every side and settle in its top until the whole tree appears covered with white blossom.

Amazonas is wonderful, fascinating, but it demands a cast-iron will and a strong constitution to exist there, even for a few days; the reality of its horrors and all its grandeur are not fully realised until one is back home, in the safety of civilisation. Then it seems a long, long way away.

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