One pleasure of retirement is getting away in midwinter to a warmer scene. For us this is counterbalanced, in a perfectly Emersonian way, by returning home to Madison, Wisconsin, at a moment when the temperature is near zero and a foot of new snow burdens the land.
We experienced both of these contrasting joys recently. Far be it from me, Dear Reader, to assault your sensibilities with arctic narratives à la Jack London. But perhaps you’d like to hear about the sunny Tropics.
We flew to Manaus, a city of more than two million people in Brazil’s northwest. It lies on the Amazon River. When I say “Amazon,” you may see dense jungle dripping with rain, bromeliads perched on every tree and bone-nosed cannibals behind every bush. The truth is less romantic.
To trek the Amazon Rain Forest is one thing; riding the Amazon River is quite another. The two are separated by miles of water.
The Amazon is either the longest or the second-longest river in the world, but it is without doubt the largest. In total volume of water carried down to the sea, no other river on Earth comes close. Thus, the Amazon can be navigated for a thousand miles, all the way to Manaus, by oceanic vessels.
Manaus is Brazil’s seventh largest city. Unlike any other city of its size, Manaus cannot be reached by road. Since air service is both expensive and sparse, most long-distance travel is by boat. People of the region measure inter-city travel in days, not hours. They take small river steamers and sleep in hammocks slung between decks.
Not we. The vessel we boarded for the trip downriver was the Viking Sea, a smallish ocean-going liner carrying nine hundred passengers plus about half that number in crew and staff. We cast off on January 19 and took four days to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
I had imagined a saga like that of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn piercing the jungle on the African Queen. But from Manaus onward, the Amazon averages six miles wide. So it was more like traversing a very long lake. We could see shore on both sides, but that’s about it.
We did glimpse life ashore at various stops along the way. In Manaus we visited the colonial-era town square and also the zoo, where actual denizens of the rainforest are on display.
At the small town of Parintins we were treated to an indoor performance of Boi Bumbá, a folkloric singing and dancing festival much enhanced by complimentary glasses of “a delicious caipirinha cocktail made of cachaça (fermented sugarcane juice), sugar and lime.” I am no judge of such noisy spectacles, but as used to say in the Fifties, it had a beat, and you could dance to it. (You, Fair Reader; not me.)
The highlight of the Amazon voyage was Santarém. We visited a cassava mill, where workers dig up wild-growing manioc or cassava tubers—they look like sweet potatoes—and extract their starch, which is tapioca. The tapioca is a staple of local cooking and also processed for export. The sap of the cassava is boiled until no longer poisonous and used as the base for a pepper-spiced sauce.
Then we went piranha-fishing on Maica Lake. In a small boat we motored up the Rio Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon. We passed small farmhouses elevated on stilts and a bit of actual Amazon rainforest, the treetops populated by sloths—which are hard to spot, but we did see some. Those passengers intent on angling for the razor-toothed piranha hung out over the gunwales with baited lines and bated breath. Eventually a few of the little devils—the fish, that is—were caught, photographed, and thrown back in to lurk in waiting for the next boatload of turistas.
Calm yourself, Gentle Reader. Your New Favorite Writer escaped with all fingers, toes, and other parts intact.
Another day of cruising the ever-widening Amazon, and we were off for the Caribbean. But that’s another story, to be recounted next week. So stay tuned.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)