Monday, 5 November 2012

Big wheel keep on turning...

...and we're rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.

 And so we were.  I've heard it said many times, (often by myself admittedly) that ships aren't supposed to be in harbour, they should be at sea.  That's where they belong and that's why they build them.
But there is an exception to this - and that is being on a river.  There is something very special about the gentle progress which is made as the ship slips through the still waters of a wide river. There are no waves breaking over the bow. The vessel doesn't roll as it makes a steady 10 knots headway, hugging one bank, and thus avoiding the risk of shallow sandbars in the middle of the river.  We have a pilot on board who will be with us from Belém to Santarém about three days from here.
 Being so close to the river's edge like this is part of the enjoyment. The rainforest is so close I can almost touch it - I can certainly smell it.  From time to time there is a flurry of activity as many-coloured birds wheel through the canopy from tree-top to tree-top. This part of the river is actually quite narrow, we're not yet on the Amazon proper, we're slicing across through some of the many channels in the delta that link the Pará River to the main river.  
Now and then we come across small clearings where stilted wooden huts balance on the water's edge. Rickety little jetties stretch out into the stream from which are tied frail-looking canoes that toss like corks as our wash breaks on the shoreline. We slow down to a walking pace and as we slide past, bare-chested children run from the huts to the bobbing canoes.  Perching precariously on the bow of their craft they propel themselves through the water and over our wash like Olympic kayakers. Our skipper, John Needham loves these kids. He's made several trips on the river before this one, but this is his first command.  Our Bajan crewmen throw lines over the side which the children expertly take hold, and our Chief Steward, known for some reason as Mickey Mouse, throws down tins of sliced beetroot and corned beef. I wonder for an instant whether they have can openers.
 From research I've been doing for this story, huts like this still appear along the river bank, although they are likely now to have a large satellite TV dish on the roof and moored alongside the canoes there is likely to be an aluminium framed dinghy with a powerful outboard motor hanging off the stern.
The local Indios appear all along the river.  As we moved further from the centres of population, the connection these folk had with so-called western civilisation became more tenuous, and though they never appeared anything but friendly, the sight of an attractive young lady smiling from her canoe, with face paint and filed teeth was sometimes a little alarming.  I do wonder however, what life is like for the Indigenous Brazilian people of that region in 2012 as the 21st century barges its way into the rainforest with super highways and increased logging - but that's a diatribe for another day.

After a day or so travelling through the delta, we break into the main river and are once again regaled by the splendour of this wide brown river where the opposite bank is so far away, it's as though we are back in the ocean or on a huge lake.  It was here that I encountered for the first time the fabulous pink dolphins (Inia geoffrensis) for which the river was richly famous. I learned that many folk believe that the dolphins changed into beautiful men and women at night (encantado) who mated with humans, returning to the river each morning. They were indeed gorgeous creatures, now heavily endangered, and I never tired of seeing them.
Santarém was a smaller version of Belém.  It was here that we changed our pilot and were joined by a new one who would steer us to Manaus. We always had a pilot on board while on the river and less there be any misconception that such a role wasn't critical take a look at this shot of the river, courtesy of Google Earth. It's like this most of the way.
   Our next major destination on the river, was to be one of my favourite ports of call.  Manaus has a wonderful history. It is the capital of the state of Amazonas.  Like Belém it has been settled for about 350 years, but its glory days were during the boom of the rubber barons in the 19th century.  
By all accounts these folk who may have been the equivalent of the oil sheikhs of later years, found increasingly more decadent ways to define profligacy. Perhaps one of the lasting monuments to their excess was an opera house, modelled on the Grand Opera de Paris. It is said that one of its first performers was the great Enrico Caruso himself.
At the time I was there it was no more than an abandoned pink elephant plonked in the Amazon jungle, a conspicuous monument to better times. How much better those times were is debatable. There is a story that several of the groups who visited and performed at the theatre fell ill with yellow fever and died whilst there. The boom was over when someone smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil to Kew Gardens in England, where they were cultured and eventually transplanted to Malaya. The happy ending to the story is that the region and the port eventually became a free trading zone and opera was heard again at the Teatro Amazonas for the first time in 90 years sometime in 2004. And it truly is a magnificent building, so perhaps my comments about the rubber barons were a little harsh.
Manaus is not on the Amazon, it sits on the much slower and wider Rio Negro. Its confluence with the Amazon (actually at that point known as the Rio Solimões) is quite spectacular with the black slow moving waters of the Negro merging into the silty brown faster flowing water of the main river.
The river rises and falls dramatically at Manaus and at low river, boats sit high and dry and the wharves tower above the sandy soil beneath.
I can't complete a discussion on Manaus with describing the night (and day) life of this city with its huge number of cheap open air bars and dance venues belting out cumbia music which to this day, I find irresistible. We had a few favourite watering holes and it was a rare evening, when there were not three or four or more of us to be found in one of these spots, where for perhaps ten thousand cruzeiros (really just a few dollars), we would enjoy a few cuba libres and a bowl of spicy moqueca fish stew and bolinhos.
There was one particular event which took place while I was in Manaus which I feel I need to share. It was June 1967; the May flood was subsiding and the drier period was around the corner. Dry is a relative term on the Amazon and it was not unusual for four or five dry days to be followed by an absolute downpour. I had been ashore for a couple of hours and was having a meal on the wide balcony of Bar Rosas when our ship's Sparkie (the radio operator) came in waving a telegram. 
"Urgent cable for you, Oz!  Came down to the ship this morning, hand delivered from the Agent's Office."  This was unheard of, no one got cables, unless it was a summons from head office transferring you to another ship in some other part of the world, or if a family member was ill. This was a worry.  I remember, the sensation as if it were yesterday as I tore open the message to read:
...and that was it.  I was an uncle for the first time.  My dear sister Jean, had wanted me to know as soon as possible.  I was elated - and also puzzled.  I thought I knew something about our family history, but where had the name Bothwell come from?  Maybe it was a family name on my brother-in-law's side of the family.
It wasn't to be until many months later, that I was to learn that an errant telegraphist in one of the offices between Cairns and Manaus had omitted a space, and in fact the message was simply telling me that mother and daughter were indeed, both well.  It has served our family as a great storyline for many years, and I see no reason at all why you, dear reader should also not share in the mirth at my expense.
It did however, provide a wonderful excuse for much prolonged celebration and while I remember the cloudburst that came down on us late that night soaking us until our teeth chattered, as we weaved our way back to the ship, I'm not sure I care to remember much else.
After another pilot change, we left Manaus for Iquitos in Peru, our final destination - but since this involved a couple of border crossings there would be a couple of diversions along the way.
I'm looking forward to telling you about Iquitos, and Leticia, and Christmas Day on the river in my next bulletin.  I should also close with a brief caveat, particularly to any Brazilian readers of this blog (and I've noticed that there are one or two). I'm remembering events which happened about 45 years ago, and while I kept a few journals at the time, much of this is from memory so if any of the history is wrong, please forgive me. I am enjoying the sense of anamnesis that comes with writing and revisiting these days, but if challenged, I won't guarantee that any of it actually took place at all. 


  1. This story is very special and poignant to me as I am the "Andrea Jean Bothwell" whom uncle Mike refers this recent blog. This anecdote has been a part of my family history and I have grown up with listening to these stories. This is so important as it keeps family connected and is part of our social history. It was read out as part of well-wishes from Uncle Mile and Aunty Pauline when I married Geoff! So, thank-you Mike, and keep writing, it's important and special and I for one, value your writings.
    Love from Andrea
    Ps, am pleased I was the cause of celebrations and merriment all those years ago on the amazon river!!

  2. Visited Manaus for a holiday a few years back and I was surprised to see a hearse with a blue flashing light, somebody in a hurry to get to heaven.

  3. Wow, I bet it was so strange to see that Opera house in the middle of the Amazon! I watched a fantastic film called "fitzcarraldo" (1982) with Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale, directed by Werner Herzog, you might have seen it?! All about a man trying to make his fortune by starting a rubber farm in Amazon there are some very surreal moments where his boat is creeping along the river whilst he listens to Caruso. Here is a link to the film, and the story of how they made it is almost more amazing as the film.

    Leo x