(BLOG 3) YOU CAN'T ESCAPE CIVILIZATION
Our fishing party flees from the equatorial sun that makes us feel like chickens in a supermarket broiler by visiting an anonymous native village on some stretch of the bewildering maze of channels, lagoons and fast rivers that make the Amazon Basin a gigantic green sponge.
It is the first time in decades of journalism that I have no idea as to the name of the hamlet I am visiting or even where we are roughly.
The villagers are 100 in number but they proudly show us their link to the world. The TV sits in a crude wooden box that can be locked. It is linked by sagging wires to a large satellite dish and a diesel generator. One villager boasts that they watched the World Cup. Right now they're watching nothing because first there was no diesel for the generator, then they got the fuel but a part in the crude network isn't working and the replacement hasn't shown up by boat.
So they pass the spare time from hunting and fishing and pounding the poison out of their cassava by playing soccer on the one big flat area they have. There's also a smaller field for the urchins running around us, and maybe 20 spectators can perch on some benches. Several fancy trophies won in matches against neighbouring villages are given a place of honour beside the TV box.
A wiry couple is making manioc in a giant wok over a wood fire. After pounding and cooking the cassava root, they have their main food, a staple that is the Third World's potato and provides about a third of the carbohydrates in world meals.
Two kids watch us solemnly, and then on the urging of our escort, one scampers up a tree to show us how he picks the bean-like berries that are used in food, even dessert, after they're soaked in water. When we don't seem impressed, he slides down 20 feet and then shoots up again. We clap, and he grins at being the day's entertainment.
The villagers in their warm welcome show us their houses, basically one-room huts with thatched roofs replaced every two years or tin roofs. The older families have the bigger rooms. One villager has a battered loaded shotgun stuck in the thatch over his door and boasts that he has killed a jaguar.
They are quite proud of their two churches. That's right, TWO churches. There hardly seems to be enough worshippers to go around but you have to do something in the village if the TV isn't working and you're tired from working and soccer. Of course the Roman Catholic Church has the finest new boards in its walls because the Church got to Brazil before the Protestants when the Portuguese conquered the natives.
As proof that politics can reach everywhere, there is one large poster proudly displayed on the side of a shack under a thatched roof. It shows the former Marxist guerilla, Dilma Rousseff, who was sworn in as the leader of Brazil only weeks before.
Back on the mother ship, I reflect that the village is the modern version of being remote. It's in touch with the world but hours from civilization. But then this is a world where climbers crow over their cell phones about their accomplishments when they're on the peak of Everest.
The leader of our fishing party, Walter Oster, head of the Canadian National Sportsmen's Shows, gives another demonstration as he sits beside me, arguing with the Ramada Inn in Florida via cell phone. He says we don't need all the rooms we've reserved for the return trip, but the chain argues we didn't cancel in time. He explains he's on the Amazon somewhere in Brazil but this cuts no ice, not in 2011.
I'm amazed at the number of my group who want to call home. Can they not enjoy the illusionary isolation?
Time for me to list the surprises of my visit. I expected the rain forest to march right up to the basin's rivers and that I would be able to look up hundreds of feet to see the fabled canopy.
No, the rain forest is back from our tributaries, and the nearer tangled jungle laced with vines is the height of an Ontario woods. And the wondrous melody of birds, like the collared puffbirds, woodcreepers and scythebills, don't hang around the shore. Just the macaws, parrots and toucans. Most animals stay away from the shores too.
No mistaking that water, though. It's billed as black water and it's dark brown to the point of night, occasionally even a deep red. Not to be drunk. There may be no industry for hundreds of kilometres and it's pure, but its bacteria doesn't match the stuff in our gut. If you're not careful, and dare to have the lovely cream soups, like one made from piranha, the resulting war brings the traveller's curse of diarrhoea. "Max", the fishing dentist from Toronto's famous Princess Margaret Hospital, advises us to take the over-the-counter remedy Imodium at the first weakening but if after a day, nothing works, hammer it with Cipro. (I always get a prescription from the world's best doctor, Bernie Gosevitz, whenever I stray from the path.)
One night, after a scholarly lecture on the differences in the peacock bass, we load several boats and set off to hunt for the cayman that we occasionally see during the day as giant submerged logs measuring us for dinner. Our guide leaps on top of the small alligators as if they were bucking broncs and at one point brings a larger one into the boat, while clamping its jaws. I contemplate jumping overboard if it gets loose.
The days pass with non-stop fishing, interrupted occasionally by giant splashes beneath the underbrush when some creature loses out to a high member of the food chain. Often we had dolphins shadowing our boats, breathing noisily as they lounged on the surface waiting for us to throw back the peacocks. Lazy creatures, but then in the wild, animals always try to conserve energy.
As we tried to. Although once when I paused in casting and casting in the blazing sun, and contemplated the thick coating of sun screen I was wearing, the guide reproached me because they were judged on how many fish we caught. "Hey," I said, "this isn't supposed to be work, it's supposed to be fun."
And it was too as we traded fibs in the dusk on the top deck, the sweat and aches and frustrations of the day behind us.
For once we have an excuse for drinks, to ward off dehydration. And it makes those fish stories seem almost plausible.