Distances are so tremendous and communications so primitive, in the
Amazonas, that countless number of its riddles will remain unexplored for many years. It
is this, rather that her more superficial attractions, which is the true adventure of the
By Yedo Figueiredo
Brazil is a nut. Brazil is a wood. Brazil is a land. But it was not the nut that gave
the country its name. This vast country, occupying all the eastern bulge of South America
and stretching some 3,000 miles from east to west, was first called Vera Cruz, the True
Cross, and was named so by the young Portuguese navigator from Belmonte (a small mountain
village west of Oporto) Pedro Álvares Cabral, who discovered it by chance on a voyage to
India on April 22, 1500. The natives called it Pindorama, Palm Tree Land. Each time a ship
called on this coast it was loaded with Brazilwood logs. The traders who bought them, not
knowing that the country from which they came already had a name, began to refer to it as
the Land of the Brazilwood, and soon the country became known as Brazil.
It is a land of records. It has the largest river and the greatest system of waterways
in the world. It is one of the few countries where man still has new frontiers of
exploration to push back. It is also a land of legends. One of the most romantic is the
belief that there are lost Indian cities lying abandoned, and explorers from the
eighteenth century onwards have been drawn in search of them.
Two degrees south of the Equator, in a region full of palm trees, is the city of Belém
(Bethlehem), the gateway to the Amazon river. Belém was a boomtown when Brazil supplied
the world with natural rubber; the splendid buildings of that prosperous era still stand
side by side with graceful churches and modern shopping centers. The climate is terribly
hot and the humidity high. Rainfall averages between 60 and 100 inches a year, rising to
as much as 160 inches.
The town of Belém started with the foundation of a fort by the Portuguese in 1616.
Hot, dusty and mysterious, it is a city of contrasts, with its fine churches all built of
stone shipped out from Portugal. Its Opera House is one of the finest in the world and is
proud to have had Pavlova dance there on her way to the USA. The picturesque market,
called Ver-o-Peso, at the end of the waterfront, is unique; early every morning
sailing boats, with their bright-colored sails, bring in all sorts of produce from far up
the Amazon to be marketed. But above all Belém, as the gateway to the mighty Amazon,
entices one up-river in the steaming heat to the jungle where the trees, bamboos and
creepers are so thick and so tall that the sun’s rays do not pierce them till many hours
I had nothing else to do but stand on the deck of the river boat and watch our
departure from Belém to the west. Slowly the Amazon appeared between ship and quay, and
the gap grew steadily wider and wider. By now it was growing dark and I watched the
twinkling lights of Belém. Its harbor used by over 3,700 miles of river, a river that
stretched its tentacles out on every side. It was a clear night and the white cathedral
made a wonderful sight, but from the outline of the city it could just as well have been
New Orleans, or any other port, except for the tremendous blanket of humid heat that hung
over us. The older men, small and thin with the cheekbones of Indians, sat on the hatch
covers with eyes gazing out across a river they did not see. Once their forefathers had
come down the coast from the jungle and there taken to clothes. Now the wheel had taken
the full circle and they themselves were on their way back to the jungle.
As we journeyed up-river, small, narrow canoes manned by children kept shooting out
from the bank clearings as though our boat were a magnet. When the canoes were within two
yards or so from us, the children dropped their paddles and sat on the narrow bows, for
they had come to bob up and down in the waves. They had lean, yellow faces with jet black
hair cut straight across the eyebrows, and they sat there, bobbing up and down, enjoying
their see-saw until the waves had passed on towards land and died away. Then they picked
up their paddles again and returned to their dilapidated huts of bamboo and palm leaves on
the bank. None of them can read or write. Their food is as wretched as it can be. Here, in
a country where a branch will send out roots or bear fruits if it is merely stuck down in
the soil, where nature is so prolific that countless fruits shower down from thousands of
trees every square mile, here the people live on rice and beans, beans and rice, day in
and day out. Perhaps occasionally there will be fish or fowl in the water in which the
rice is cooked, but beans and rice and a handful of manioc flour sprinkled into the
potthat is their main meal from the cradle until their all too early death.
After three days and nights of navigation in a wide brownish stream, with shores low
and undistinguishable, the jungle closed in and I saw primitive man in his native place
for the first time. Our river boat anchored to allow some of the men and their families,
together with their strange bundles, to go ashore to start a new life in Amazonas. I, too,
went ashore in one of the little canoes. The few houses on the bank were but square roofs
on the fronds of the species of palm, upheld at each corner by poles seven feet high, had
no sides and were quite open. Several children, quite naked, watched me walk towards one
of the dwellings. A tray of manioc root was set in the sun to dry. Under a gourd tree was
a heap of turtle shells. But most remarkable were the pets. A bunch of macaws ran in and
out of the bushes. Looking up, I noticed an audience of monkeys. A sudden movement of mine
set them off like fireworks.
To come upon a settlement on the Amazon is like a windfall at sea, but there at last
was Santarém. In 1682, Jesuit missionaries founded a monastery there and the Portuguese
built a fort, both powers seeking, each in its own fashion, to gain control of the same
area. The three towns, Belém, Santarém and Manaus, are still the key points in life on
the Amazon, marker flags that civilized man has placed at strategic points of that
scarcely inhabited green expanse.
There is a chapter in the history of Santarém that gives it a special position in
Amazonas. When the American Civil War ended it left 200 inhabitants of a small Dixie town
feeling disappointed and bitter. With their slaves and implements they sailed to Santarém
and settled there. These colonists have been absorbed into the local population, although
traces of their influence can still be seen. Their descendants speak Portuguese and do not
understand English; that is, in fact, the only case of an Anglo-Saxon colony letting
itself be absorbed into a community among which it has settled.
It is almost impossible to conceive the vastness of the Amazonian untouched jungle
forests. No one knows for sure how many different kinds of tree grow in them, or what
unknown kinds of animals may be lurking beneath the thick roof of leaves; new insects and
reptiles are continually being found. The jungle has remedies for fevers and diseases. We
have a lot to learn from the Indians who live in Amazonas. They certainly know much about
plants of which we are ignorant, and this could, therefore, prove a rewarding field of
study. Amazonas is such an inconceivably huge district, the distances so tremendous and
communications so primitive, that countless number of its riddles will remain unexplored
for many years. It is this, rather that her more superficial attractionsa boa
rustling in the undergrowth, a distantly growling jaguarwhich is the true adventure
of the Amazon.
The greatness of Manaus came with the rubber boom. In 1866, where before there had been
an insignificant village, deep in the heart of the jungle, a modern town sprang up.
Manaus, although over 1,000 miles from the sea, soon became the great distributing port
and export center for rubber, due to the fact that this part of the river affords a
splendid harbor for shipping. As the huge black balls of raw rubber were carried
down-river, so a stream of white men came up from the sea.
A number of rubber barons of Manaus decided at the height of the rubber boom that they
would make their town a cultural center, as good as any in the old world. They ordered,
among other buildings, an opera house to be built with Italian marble, Bohemian crystal
and other fine materials shipped all the way from Europe. Today Manaus is quite a city,
but there stands the famous Teatro Amazonas, its blazing gold and blue cupola
visible from far and wide above the tops of the trees. It was built to rival Belém, but
when the rubber boom ended Belém was saved by its harbor next to the ocean; Manaus had no
On leaving Manaus for the last and longest stretch of the journey, I had many
opportunities for exploring the jungle and its clearings; often we stopped at a tiny,
sleepy settlement where noise and liveliness sprang up as we appeared. A continual great
nuisance were the mutuca flies; they are almost the same size and appearance as the
bluebottle. The mutucas would settle on my wrists and ankles and where each had fed
there would be a wound from which the blood steadily trickled. Also in this region the pium
mosquitos swarmed; tiny black insects which alight on the hands and face, perhaps a
dozen at a time, and gorge themselves, though you may be unconscious of it. Where the pium
feeds it leaves a dot of extravasated blood which remains for weeks.
It was night when we reached the huts which I knew to be the Cucui Mission, and I could
hear a continuous low thundering of the rapids which lay only a few yards up-river. Here I
was, at last, at the end of my journey, on the fringe of hostile Indian territory. I had
great respect for the priest in charge, who, without fuss or show, just a though it was
the natural thing to do, had sold all his possessions thirty-nine years ago and settled
thousands of miles from civilization in order to try and help primitive people.
Since when the Portuguese discovered that the long tongue of muddy water which
stretched from the North Coast of South America came from a mighty river, countless deadly
struggles have happened between white men and Indians, for these primitive people cannot
differentiate between those who come to plunder and those who come to help and teach them
how to live. The Indians have learned, moreover, that firearms are not the only things to
fear when the white man approaches. In his footsteps come diseases that have never been
known in the jungle before and to which jungle dwellers have no resistance.
Today one can still see in the Indian villages, and especially the larger ones like
Cucui, natives who were maimed in punishment by the early rubber collectors. The hatred
which this deed implanted deep within the souls of these primitive men keeps rising to the
surface and impelling them to fanatical struggles whenever, through the years, the white
man has made any attempt to approach or make friends with the tribes of the remoter parts.
At Cucui we could feel safe from an attack by the Indians only at night, for no Indian
would dare to go out of the ring of fire in the dark. However primitive the Indian’s way
of life, and however much we may have that seems wonderful to him, he would never change
his lot for ours. We have so much to learn from them, for their knowledge of nature’s
secrets is amazing. However badly one gets lost in the jungle, if one is lucky enough to
have an Indian bearer, he will find his way to a river, even in terrain that is quite
strange to him.
A few days later, when the sun was just rising, I stepped into our small boat, about to
leave Cucui for the journey back to Manaus, and Rio de Janeiro. As the priest had said
during one of our long talks, the pull of the Amazon is very strong and grows stronger as
you leave it. Now it was pulling me and I was sorry to leave, for I felt that there was
still so much to see, so much to learn. I had grown to love Amazonas and to look forward
to the next bend in the river, which always revealed something new and unexpected: the
wonderful scenery, the hidden waterfalls, orchids, hundreds of butterflies and the snakes
banded orange and black.
I should remember all my life the white herons, standing on one leg in the shallow
water. With their fine tail feathers they are far more the birds of the Amazon than the
parrot and the toucan, commonly chosen to symbolize this river. The loveliest sight of all
is when, towards sunset, the herons all make for the same tree. They come gliding in from
every side and settle in its top until the whole tree appears covered with white blossom.
Amazonas is wonderful, fascinating, but it demands a cast-iron will and a strong
constitution to exist there, even for a few days; the reality of its horrors and all its
grandeur are not fully realized until one is back home, in the safety of civilization.
Then it seems a long, long way away.
Yedo Figueiredo, email@example.com,
lives in a small mountain town north of Rio de Janeiro. As a geophysicist, he has spent
most of his life traveling all over Brazil and also abroad (South America, Canada, Europe
and Southwest Asia), usually in the hinterland, looking for mineral deposits. Main
interests are folklore music, soccer and making friends around the world.
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