Extract from A LIFE AD-LIB (autobiography), Ariel Books, London, 2008. Amy Lois Henry (1916-1999) was the mother of the author, accompanying him on many world-wide journeys in the last decade of her life.
Fishing for piranha one day, Manola and I talked about sailing to the source of The Amazon, the river we were on right now, in its middle in the heart of Brazil. Here, it loomed vast as a lake or inland sea. At this holiday lodge on an island, we felt far away from the whole world. Half-Indian, he worked here as a guide. On previous days, he had shown us how to survive in jungle, finding berries and vegetation; how to make tools and hunting and fishing gear out of sticks and stones; how fresh water can be taken from hollow branches. At a viewing of small, freshwater crocodiles in a creek, a brash Italian and his glamorous wife ordered the catching of one into our small boat for her to photograph as it sat on the man's lap. Manola and the boatman lashed the mooring rope to tie up its jaws so one creature filled this role. Lois and I objected to all this, perhaps dangerous; but mainly for its cruelty. The Brazilians said they never hunted or ate crocodiles, as other areas of the globe practised. I said it might be more positive if they had eaten the crocodile. Released now, swimming off, it would never feel sure and natural again, after that capture and taunting by man.
Manola and the boatman, sheepish about this, brought me alone on this fishing trip, to make amends. Lois stayed back, feeling tired and sun-affected. Moored in leafy shallows, we caught small red or yellow piranha, even I landed one. These were bait for bigger fry, including a large, Black Piranha, Manola said I had caught, though, really, he made it look that way. He said to take it to the chef for my dinner tonight.
We dined in style, the taste good as of a Dover Sole. The Italians at the next table snubbed us, thankfully. An American lady we had spoken with before, passed our table, asking:
"How was that piranha fishing?"
"Great", I said. "This is one now, What is left of it."
"You are eating them?" She stammered, aghast.
"The trick is to eat them fast, before they can eat you." I said. The head, with teeth in place, still lay on my dinner-plate. I poked open the jaw with my fork, saying:
"Would you care for a bite?" She squealed and fled to her own table.
After our lodge visit, Manola returned with us by boat to Manaus, for a few days off. His wife lived here and did not like the remote life, which caused tension in their relations. He found us an economic hotel, and the address of a wharf to find a boat going right up The Amazon. That evening we strolled along there to check on this. Out of the porthole of a rough old tramp steamer, the even rougher face of an old salt leered out and spoke Portuguese I could not gather. Were they going upriver? Sure, to Tabatinga, the way to Peru. When, tomorrow? No, tonight. In an hour from now. He said. We needed to get money and visas, and recheck credit cards, not so easy back in those days. We should grab this boat now, sort out everything later, on the way. Lois said it was reckless, rushing on with few arrangements. This was The Amazon, not easy to travel. There would be plenty more boats, tomorrow, or soon. There were not, it turned out. Midday next day, after trying to arrange matters, we were told at the wharf office that no more boats sailed to Tabatinga for a week, or more. I cursed missing that voyage last night, and in fact our credit money was locked in the system at the moment, so we could have left anyway.
Nothing could be done by the banks for a while. Tonight, another boat would leave, to branch off later from The Amazon into the Madeira, really an arm of the same river, and, in a week, reach almost to Bolivia. This was nearly as good. Fares cost the equivalent of fifty pounds each, for five days and nights of a thousand mile voyage; meals thrown in, literally, onto a rough table, everybody grabbing what they could. Quarters were on deck, hammocks to be slung from spars, sold here now by dockside vendors. Now we had three Brazilian dollars, (reals) left in the kitty. I had a few minutes to go to the edge of town. On return, as casting off began, I said we were now clean broke, I blew the change on a useful item for the voyage. Lois asked what that could be. I revealed a bottle of Brazilian rum.
"You always find the perfect answer." She said.
In Manaus we had visited the famous Opera House, splendid here at this river-jungle venue, inspiration for Herzog's film "Fitzcarraldo". A wild Irish adventurer, after many mad ventures, realises his dream of staging Grand Opera in The Amazon Jungle, after finding that his pet pig likes this music, from overhearing it on the wind-up gramophone. An Italian opera company is brought upriver by canoes to sing Bellini's "Il Puritani" in this setting. The man then goes on to try inaugurating a steamship route in this area of impossibilities, involving towing a ship overland aided by tribal Indians. Making the film, Herzog had to solve an intertribal war to keep his labour force. I related all this, as we embarked in darkness and a gathering storm, up the broad Amazon into the unknown, to Lois who had not seen the picture.
"Something in this area draws men of madness, or sends them that way," she said.
"On an old tub where no-one speaks our language, we have no beds, not a coin of money in any kind. In a week and a thousand miles ahead, we dock where we know not where, maybe not the same country, clueless how we go on, or get back home. Are you worried?" I asked.
"I've been waiting to do this all my life. Stop making it sound so simple." Lois replied.
Then the storm broke as we reached the middle of the river, vast as a wild, dark sea.
Rain in Brazil does not drop gentle from heaven, but crashes in everything and gets done with it. At the coastal river-mouth port of Belem, where we had passed, rain hits every afternoon at the same time, lasting two hours, or less, Furious downpour. The knack is to see the town first and get to a bar before that hour strikes, then sit there with a glass of beer; watching it sluice down outside. Always we made it, once only just. Here, on the river-boat, there were no bars; in fact little cover for the lowest grade deck passengers: ourselves. Corners of gantries and lifeboat stanchions lent some shelter. The locals did seem not to give a damn, wearing little but shorts and singlets, they let it run down, wearing the rain as if it was natural apparel. A boon, better than drought or thirst, it filled the river, which was their lifeline. Brazil has no roads to speak of. If you cannot afford internal flights, The Amazon is your road home. That is where they headed, workers or students, from time in cities on the Eastern coast.
Next day, after the storm, we started talking with them. Few knew English and we knew no Portuguese, but my very broken Spanish could make some headway. At one point. Lois said to me: "Will you stop telling people I am seventy-eight. I am only seventy-seven until December."
I thought it sounded more impressive, such a brave old lady, but she will not stand for inaccuracy or exaggeration. Our predicament hardly needed any of that, after all.
One man I listened to for a while had been in the Portuguese army in Africa, when his nation still had colonies there. Thinking me a wide adventurer, he wanted I should hear his story, in Portuguese. Difficult, but I have a knack, picked up from first living in Paris with limited French. By concentrating hard at the very beginning of a conversation, the theme can be gleaned, so that sense can be made of it all, even if ninety per cent of the words you do not know.
The boat moored at riverside villages two or three times each day to unload the cargo, its main function. Dockers appeared and lugged ashore loads, then we sailed again.
These were mostly sacks of cement or crates of beer. Little wine appears in this country, but ale is in high demand. Stacks of it left on the jetty would stem this equatorial thirst for a few days, until the next boat came. Bottles of the stuff got sold aboard, but we had not a penny to pay for it, and so keep going on the rum. Coffee was freely available from an urn on deck all day. "An awful lot of coffee in Brazil" an old song went. So did we, to the urn many times a day. Scrambling for meals came in between, a big winner in these stakes being "The Walrus" as I called the burly guy with big moustache, grabbing grub first. Nature in the raw would be like this, and he was pretty close to it. He glared hard at everyone, especially at us, muttering, as if we should not be on his boat, his river, his country, his planet. Some fellow travellers were better. A teenage, Negroid youth mingled amiably, but others mocked his zany simplicity of behaving, put down to drinking, which he did a bit. But I said he was probably mentally-backward. Lois agreed, she had already befriended him as we all survived together, a week on the open deck. Anywhere in the world, she always showed kindness to the most overshadowed people. I might call it Socialism, she would say it was natural. The hammock I hardly used, finding its twisting, curving, swinging form hard to manage, and less comfortable than the wooden deck. Hard beds I have always been used to. Lois delighted in her slung, sailor-style bed, and swung leisurely in it, any time of day or night. Sleep I needed little of, and the night river felt very calm yet mysterious. Often I stood alongside the helmsman in his small, open-backed foc'sle, watching his skill, or exchanging brief words. Two of them shared the post, six hours on, six hours off, throughout the day or night. One was pale-skinned, slim and taciturn, the other, swarthy, stocky and talkative. Knowing some English, he asked about my travelling and gave some details of the river. Every minute, literally, he would switch on a powerful spotlight, and play it upon the river ahead in a set pattern of coverage, then turn it off for some seconds, until starting again. Carefully, in plain words, I told him the story from Manaus. He deserved entertainment in long navigation through darkness. Not the tale of the Irish jungle opera impresario with the pig; maybe later. This was the Norwegian in Manaus the day that we had sailed. At the bank vainly trying to get our credit account back on track, we met this man calling in for cash. He was cycling alone from Cape Horn to Nova Scotia, making our travels look a bit puny.Crossing some river south before reaching The Amazon here, he crossed by building a raft for himself and bike, ripping down branches on the bank. His trek involved tasks like this, more primitive than our itinerary, stark enough by most standards. Somewhere he heard the news that a Norwegian girl lay in police cells in Manaus on serious charges. His route came by here, so he had applied to see her, this evening. He opened his wallet for some matter and noticed something he showed us. A single contraceptive, for his great journey, in case such equipment was needed, though not so far. He was very moral.
"Maybe you will fall in love with the girl in prison, help her escape off with you to Norway, and that equipment be handy on the way." I had suggested.
The helmsmen understood the gist of all this, asking "Are Norwegians more zany even than English or Irishmen." "Only slightly." I replied.
Porto Velho, the end of the voyage, the last town in Brazil, in every sense, had once been a rail link to Bolivia's rubber-trade, loading it here on to The Amazon for the Atlantic. World trade competition, and colonial changes, ended that. Train locos still hung around at the edge of town, like stranded crocodiles, mouldering away. I noted they had all been built in Philadelphia and other US cities in a passed era. One had a few carriages and took sightseeing trips in the jungle a few miles. Nobody else seemed going and we had not a cent for fares. Somebody said we missed nothing. Jungle ten miles away looks no different to the edge of it here. The weekend and banks closed, we had to hang on, but accommodation improved from the boat deck. We had a moderately fine hotel which shared a swimming-pool with The Sheraton next door, and we dined well, and drank glasses of planters' punch. All bills went on the credit card, which though frozen and in dispute, did not show up new transactions with banks closed. We had to live like film stars a few days, because cheap places took no credit. Nobody complained. Monday morning, a friendly, English-speaking transport agent got us a long-distance call to England, and a friend topped up our bank balance. So at last, the banks here coughed up.
A bus took us on to another crossing of Madeira River, frontier to Bolivia. In darkness, a ferry boat man said not to bother about checking through. In the morning, we woke in an average hotel found late last night; and faced the immigration office. A stern madam said we had not cleared Brazil and must go back over the river. Damn. At Brazil immigration, Lois said we had already been on the other side, as if this would help. It certainly would not, probably landing us in jail. They did not hear.
"Do not tell them that." I muttered. We were in enough of a mess already until we got money again. The towns on both side of the river have nearly the same name, not helping the confusion. Back at the Bolivian Guayeren Selim, a bus left for La Paz, the capital, hopefully a pleasant journey.
The little bus jaunt to La Paz was about the most harrowing journey ever known to us; wishing to be back on the two-years-before-the-mast deal on The Amazon. It lasted thirty six hours, through two nights and an airless sultry day. The bus had no springs left, and the road had never been surfaced in tar. If Brazil has no roads, we wished Bolivia could stay the same. The terrain was steep and rocky, the passengers hard as nails, having to be if this was commuting Andes-style. Compensation came in La Paz. The Folk Music and the people playing or hearing it were immensely attractive. We had time for a boat trip on Lake Titicaca. Lois always wished to see Maccu Picchu, some way beyond it in Peru, as we first planned. But time had run out, our plane was booked from La Paz today, back to The West. We had earlier seen Rio, and the Sugar Loaf and the Christ Statue, Corcavado, mountains. We had been to the Argentina border for the Iguacu Waterfalls, two hundred and fifty of them linked in a great complex around whirlpools. Then came The Amazon. A lot of water had flowed under and over many points during our time on this continent. Lois still always blamed me for missing the Inca Peru Temple. She was right. I must have counted wrong on my fingers somewhere along the way.
(Reprinted with permission of the author)
Patrick Henry: Born 1938, Yorkshire, England, Irish parentage. Customs Officer London, Royal Airforce Draftee, Cyprus, 1957-59. Wrote poetry in London, Paris, Cornwall; worked construction, farming, factory, café, bookshop jobs. Published On the Track, Peterloo Poets 1971. Published translations of Fruits of Winter, Prix Goncourt, 1970 and Women of The Celts, Cremonesi, 1975. Adult student at University of Wales, University of East Anglia, Trinity College, Hartford Connecticut during 1980s. Painting exhibition Paris, 1998. Poetry Reading Tour in New York 2001 arranged by Big City Lit. Painting Exhibition, Australia, 2003. Poetry Reading and Painting Exhibition tour New York State, 2004, arranged by The Author's Watermark and Poets & Writers. Poetry and prose featured in BigCityLit and in www.thisisull.com (UK website), 2001-2007. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.