In those days, Rt. 364 was just a muddy track through the jungles of Rondônia. Jim was on his way to Porto Velho, to catch a riverboat that would take him down the Rio Madeira to Manaus, the fabled city at the heart of the Amazon. But right then it didn’t look as if anyone would make it to Porto Velho.
There had been the usual rains and the result had been the usual mud. A large truck had lost traction, slid sideways, and was blocking the only route to the interior. All traffic was stopped, but no one seemed too upset. Passengers in the bus either chatted in low tones or snored the time away. In front of them, mired to its axels in the mud, was one of the many trucks come to a standstill in the middle of nowhere. The two drivers had set up a small kerosene cookstove on a flat surface behind their cab, just before the trailer pin. In thick rubber boots, they hovered over their boiling rice and linguiça, as if on a normal evening cookout. It was clear that this delay was just part of normal life for them. And none of the passengers on Jim’s bus seemed perturbed or even impatient. This delay, this suspension of time, their utter helplessness, seemed to distress no one. É a vida, as everyone said whenever things didn’t work out, whenever life came to a stop. That’s life. He himself was squirming with frustration, but he could see how well a fatalistic philosophy served the Brazilian people when confronted once again by an irremediable setback. É a vida. Did they all consider the motto on their flag a worthy dream or a good laugh: Ordem e Progresso? Order and Progress. Or did they understand that a motto had nothing to do with real life? Jim would have liked to see the national flag of exuberant green and yellow displaying the words, Vamos dar um jeito (we’ll figure it out, we’ll find a way) or even the more effective philosophical solution to all problems, É a vida (that’s life). Well, there was nothing to be done but wait, with everyone else, for the huge tractors and tow trucks that would grind through the jungle, pull the skewered truck straight, haul all of them out of the knee-deep muck, and get things crawling forward again. And so they all sat in a timeless realm of tropical paralysis, with the jungle dripping fecund all around.
Then suddenly something happened. Out of nowhere, out of no-time, a solitary Indian entered the stationary bus. He was not tall, and he looked young and astonished. But for a band of beads around his head and a bow and some light arrows in his hand, he was utterly naked. On his face were two rows of black markings. He climbed up the steps, entered the corridor, gazed intently at the passengers, then slowly made his way from the front to the back of the bus. There he touched the blurry, rain-streaked back window; then turned around and noiselessly made his way back down the aisle, turning his head to look with apparent interest, perhaps even wonder, at the assortment of creatures squeezed into the vehicle, heavy with an odor of stagnation. Without a word or a gesture, he descended from the bus, and in an instant, like an apparition, he simply disappeared, swallowed by the immensity around them. No one said a word. Those who had been sleeping kept on sleeping and those who had been conversing in low tones before the interruption, broke free from the momentary spell and returned to their pleasant, idle conversations.
Jim himself had finally fallen asleep, but sometime in the middle of the night he was awakened by the grinding of gears and he felt the bus begin to move, swaying and wallowing forward on the muddy track. The army with heavy machinery had come and cleared the route and, within the confines of reality, re-established a kind of order. Now everyone was finally on their way, one might even say that progress had been temporarily reaffirmed.
There was no doctor available in Porto Velho to give him the yellow fever inoculation he had been planning on, so Jim bought a mosquito net and a hammock and resigned himself to fate, as he joined other wayfarers clambering up the gangplank of a large, bulky riverboat heading for Manaus, five days away. He hung his hammock on the open deck and tried to drape his new mosquito netting above it. His neighbors laughed and told him there were no mosquitos out on the river. He accepted their jungle savvy and wanted to seem hip to their world, so he quickly removed the netting and squeezed it away in a side pocket of his backpack and never looked at it again. He smiled with some embarrassment at his two neighbors and thanked them for their advice. After watching loading activities on the quay, he returned to his hammock and slumped into what would be his bed, his home, his cocoon, as long as he remained on the river.
The young fellow to his left had a craggy nose, dark skin, and a mournful gaze. As the boat left the port and drifted out into the immensity of the slowly flowing river, he turned to Jim and they exchanged names. Jim explained that he was an American on his way to Manaus. José said he had come to Porto Velho to get married. He was eighteen, his bride was only sixteen. But less than a week ago she had suddenly fallen ill, developed a fever, turned yellow, and in three days she had died. They had never gotten married. Now he was heading home to his village two days down the river. He was a young man bent over in sorrow. É a vida gave no comfort. They shared some bananas and some oranges. Jim commiserated with the young man, still in shock at his loss.
For two days, Jim gazed at the river and ate nothing but bananas and oranges, resolved to avoid any chance of dysentery. Finally, feeling the pangs of hunger and seeing everyone else eating heartily from the rice and fish dish cooked in a huge kettle in water drawn directly from the river, he took the plunge and joined the others at the evening repast. After nothing but fruit for two days, the rice and fish tasted great and, despite his fears, no tropical illness fell upon him. A day later, the boat pulled over to the shore, and a large pig was led squealing to the edge of a flimsy wooden pier. There was a single shot absorbed by the vastness of the impenetrable jungle, and the immensity of brown water flowed on. The dead pig, suspended from two thick branches, was carried on board, and for the rest of the journey everyone ate rice and roasted pork.
From the first day, Jim had noticed that the silent man in the hammock to his right had been reading. He was a large man with a handsome, tanned face. When he looked up from his book, he would smile at Jim and say “Good day,” or “Good afternoon,” but that was all. Jim was astonished, on the third day, when he noticed that his neighbor was reading Karl Kautsky’s The Class Struggle. He asked his companion about the book, and the handsome man merely said that he liked to read. Jim asked if he was on vacation. “Not exactly,” was the non-committal reply.
“Ah, so you are working here in the interior?” Jim pushed on.
“Well, I’m from Sao Paulo, but I am up here to do some training,” his neighbor conceded. Jim waited for more.
“I’m going to a kind of a camp,” the handsome stranger said.
“What kind of a camp,” said Jim.
“Well, I’ll be studying counter-insurgency in the jungle,” said his traveling companion, with a gentle smile. “In fact, I better gather up my stuff, since I’ll be getting off pretty soon.”
The riverboat was in the middle of nowhere. They had left the last village hours ago.
There was no sign of habitations, no houses on stilts, no rickety piers, no dug-out canoes.
Just the impassive, impenetrable green face of the endless, silent jungle. But then the boat suddenly slowed down and turned toward shore, though nothing distinguished this spot from any other. The handsome stranger stood up, folded his hammock neatly into a small bundle, squeezed it into his green duffle bag, looked down at the curious American visitor, extended his hand and gave him a firm squeeze of goodbye.
“Enjoy your travels,” he said to Jim, as he shouldered his duffle bag, grabbed his smaller day bag in his right hand, and strode to the railing at the bow of the boat. The captain had slowed the engines almost to a stop and the large vessel drifted soundlessly toward the vine-draped opaque façade of the jungle. As the boat nudged softly against the muddy bank, the tall stranger climbed over the rail, stood on the edge of the deck, then, like a predator at home in this endless tropical forest, leapt smoothly and deftly onto the shore.
There seemed to be no one waiting for him, and one couldn’t see a path, but, without looking back, he quickly disappeared, swallowed up by the mystery of the jungle.
As the riverboat slowly backed away from the shore, Jim stood there gazing at the impassive wall of green. He remembered the naked Indian who had entered their bus from nowhere, glided up and down the aisle, and then vanished back into the wall of dripping verdure, as if entering another universe. He wondered suddenly what he was doing there, what he had come to find. The jungle said nothing, of course.
Photo by Ann/Adobe Stock