The Making of a Novel


Amazon | A walk in the Rain Forest Cathedral

Manaus, August 20 to 23

August 20 - Docked at Manaus on 17th, 18th interview preparations, 19th visit EMBRAPA, 20th to INPA, Amazonia Research Station. First word to describe Manaus is HOT. Heat that brings tiredness, lethargy and seems to slow down pace of everyone. Like many Brazilian (and South African) cities tendency has been to knock down the old in boom/bust growth. Interspersed are buildings from rubber boom days, highly ornate structures totally out of context with local atmosphere. European-style buildings transported to the Manaus Old and Newmidst of the Amazon jungle. Somewhat typical of many Brazilian cities, this failure to incorporate the local climate and scene into architecture. At least, Manaus is cleaner, less repressive/ oppressive than Recife.

First three days sharing hotel room with Englishmen Rod and Mark, fine company, fine hotel, OK at 3200 cruzeiros for three but after they left I moved this morning to god-awful place only 800cr. less. No hot water, five beds in room. Carpetless floor. Practically windowless. Depressing! Reconcile myself as I look at pictureless, grimy walls that I am saving 800cr. a day = meals.

Don't have any real contacts here, so it's a long slog to get something achieved. The usual day spent in presentation and selling of oneself. Saw most of group from boat but realize that I have to distance myself from them, even though the conversation was wonderful.

I'm anxious to move on to Porto Velho but feel that I have to stick it out here until I've had a proper introduction to the Amazon forest. So far what contact there has been lacks intimacy, the feel of the place, but perhaps the excessive contact with “foreigners” adds to the problem Will persevere!

Manaus, the old and the new in 1981
Manaus, the old and the new in 1981

Why Manaus is like an island in the river sea

August 20(PM) Manaus is like an island, the darkness out there, this hot night — the unknown, great swards of green as mysterious as the depth of the ocean. The isolation one feels is accentuated. I see Vicente here (“Vicente Cavalcanti,” a character imagined for Brazil), a tall, robust, bearded and gaunt figure tramping these streets in 1910/1912,feeling a totally alien atmosphere, wanting only to retreat to that “green” ocean, to lose himself in that reality. I see him walking, lonely and frightened, through the Eiffel-designed marketplace with its iron work to the Manaus Opera House and Palace of Justice, past the gaudy little hotels trying desperately to offer some hold to Europe and a civilization far removed.

Don't know how the mind of a Brazilian works but can hardly imagine how a Rio/ São Paulo/ Brasília person relates this area to “his Brasil,” other than in a possessive-territorial sense, the idea of having this superb national treasure. Posed a question to Mark and Rod as we parted: “Who are the Brazilians?” A mighty one to answer but I know what I'm racing toward.

After thirty days in North-East, feel victim of North-East depression. Somehow, I need to experience something that will show the Hope, the Excitement of Brazil.

For thirty days I have tramped, bused and otherwise moved through the North-East growing increasingly downcast at life in the region. Even the Amazon is drawn in with the sight of downed, destroyed woodland and pathetic attempt to “farm” it — a vision aggravated by fact that farms visited belong to EMBRAPA researchers. God knows how hope-filled people from the North-East face staggering challenge to “produce” something, a livelihood, on such lands. Nothing said or shown by researchers convinced me that they're anywhere near solving the countless challenges.

In my more “mature” attitude to Brazil, keep reminding myself that though Michener wrote about South Africa, he detested apartheid. There are similarities in my approach/ attitude toward Brazil. I find the history, the past, utterly fascinating; the present reflected, too often, in the filthy gray pools at my feet.

Manaus historical market designed by Eiffel
Manaus historical market designed by Eiffel

Fear and loathing in Manaus

August 23 Maybe it was the heat, maybe the “intrusion of tourist types” but the five days spent at Manaus seem the least productive, including entire day wasted waiting for director of INPA, Amazon research institute, from 10.30 till 4. Spent the time in their library. When she eventually saw me, she told me to return the next morning at 9.30. I did and was told a) no one available for an interview b) no one to go with me to the “forest.”

At which point I said to hell with it and sought out my own boat on the waterfront Manaus and found a personable navigator — Daniel! Six hour trip to confluence of Amazon and Negro, then into Solimões and through narrow creeks to enter cathedral-like forest. Exactly what I wanted.

Arranged a second trip for yesterday, another six hours, this time north, very different as we went through forest to cachoeira where we swam. God knows what you could pick up!

Perhaps it's the influence of the other estrangeiros who come filled with visions of tropical menace and talk of all manner of ailments but I find myself becoming “health conscious.” Won't dare miss my malaria tablet; bathe open “wound” on my foot a) with antiseptic solution b) powder antiseptic c) cover with band-aid. Ultra careful with water and absolutely refuse salads.

Words like malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, hepatitis, septic wounds etc. commonplace in vocabulary but perhaps it's something else that calls for caution. In the U.S., in developed countries we have reached an ascendancy of man over Nature, control lies in our hands. The environment has been conquered and controlled physically and spiritually. Here, not so: when you enter the forest environment you are entirely at its mercy. Man is out of scale here, his size nothing against the horizonless, surrounding forest.

Manaus boat dock in 1981
Manaus boat dock in 1981

Again and again, I think of the entradas: How the small band of Raposo Tavares could have found its way through the jungle is amazing. Deviate for one moment from the mainstream and you enter a maze of water that twists through the forest, sometimes spreading like a lake, sometimes splitting into different streams that take off in several directions.

 For an hour on Friday we drifted down a section of the Solimões, engine shutAmazon River Bank Brazil Uys off, everyone silenced. It was like meditation in a cathedral. The trees offering every shade of green, the waters of the river colored green with their reflections.

 A forbidding environment, gnarled roots of trees exposed on the banks where storm waters have torn away the soil; trees standing in the water, dead twisted shapes awaiting the final thrust of nature, when they will loosen their hold on the soil, fall and be carried away. Clumps of hyacinth stretch out from the banks, sometimes grow like small islands midstream.

 Inside the forest, the water is smooth as glass, the area deserted, only occasional glimpse of a canoe with a fisherman sitting cross-legged up front, bow and arrow ready for action. A scene that was the same hundreds, thousands of years ago.

 Waters deep blue out in the great rivers Amazon and Negro, a turbulent brown and blue at confluence, green in the forest. Brown, too, with soils carried down from the Andes.

By canoe into the Amazon rain forest
By canoe into the Amazon rain forest

Amazon backlot: Looking beyond Hollywood

As the canoe moves along, only occasional flash of brilliant color. I think most of the birds have retreated deeper into the forest, as with the monkeys and other wild life, what little there is. I'm surprised by a lack of color other than green, only occasional touch of mauve, yellow or white, but put this down to dry season. During five days, several tropical downpours, short, furious, bursts of rain mainly in the afternoon, a respite from the heat.

Humble houses, pathetic little escolas alongside the tributaries, seem to attest to the impotence of man in this mighty environment. One is aware of the great wounds left in the forest by vast projects: as EMBRAPA pointed out, left to itself the forest can regenerate secondary growth in three to five years. This is not to say there isn't a threat.

Amazon rain forest
Amazon rain forest depths

The “Hollywood” version of the Amazon jungle is more impressionistic than real. I think many Amazon “adventures” were shot in California backlots showing a density and height that's not right. The greatness of the Amazon lies in its horizontal and not vertical spread; its sheer size and variety is what gives it an awesome aspect. Under the forest canopy, you can let your imagination drift back to a time of creation, the very beginnings of earth. Truly, the Amazon rain-forest cathedral!

If man is out of scale, so are the river fish. Saw a pirarucu that had been harpooned, six to seven feet, like a porpoise with “chain-mail” scale protection, so hard they're used as nail files.

The lianas look like taut cables stretching skyward, sometimes perfectly straight. Walking within forest, immediately assaulted by countless insects. Leaned against a tree and found small maggot-like creatures with pint-point black heads on arm. Think they're chiggers that bore into your skin. Repulsive to “civilized” man.

Under the Amazon rain forest canopy
Under the Amazon rain forest canopy

Walking along shore to each of swamp, water-logged trees, undergrowth... Picture how it must have been for those like the Madeira-Mamoré railroad workers wading through stench, insects, slimy mud underfoot, near Amazon Forest Interiorimpossibility once you enter area to find clean water.

Manaus, itself, continues to be an enigma, this island-city with its skyscrapers rising suddenly beyond the final hill as you emerge from the forest. The older, almost bizarre-looking architecture, English and French structures, marketplace, library, post office, opera house take prize for incongruity. Though surely gave Manaus a special atmosphere during rubber boom days, unique and totally unlike skyscraper skyline of today.

Today's newspaper carried sobering news that Glauber Rocha died, age 43, of heart attack in Rio. (We lived as neighbors in Sintra, Portugal, prior to my coming to Brazil.) Was talking about Rocha last night at film of Getúlio Vargas.

(Some impressions from Vargas film: Depicted era similar to Peron/Bittencourt. First, there was striving for a Brazil independent of foreign dependency, multinational “colonialism.” 2) Genuine attempt to improve “lot of the workers.” Enormous popularism. 3) Many, many military-style parades in late 30s vaguely reminiscent of Mussolini's Italy, youth brigades etc. 4) symbolic flag burning, representing end of state hegemony and move toward national unity 5) Vargas, small, chubby, round-faced, spectacles, often smiling, seemed a genuine honest type. (Whatever the bias of film, I found it incredible to accept his suicide. Suicide note was a forgery to cover up his murder? I wonder. Must put that to sources.)

Almost time to go to the “Rodoviária” again — a word I will never forget. Twenty-one hours to Porto Velho.

Manaus to Porto Velho bus trip in 1981
Manaus to Porto Velho bus trip in 1981

BRAZIL by Errol Lincoln Uys