Monday, July 21, 2014

Dispatches from the Amazon - Last in a four-part series

This is an update we received July 13 from Professor Marc Meyers, who is currently in Brazil, scouting locations for an expedition up the River of Doubt, which he plans to start this fall. Meyers plans to retrace the steps of Theodore Roosevelt, who explored the river 100 years ago, in 1914.
More on Meyers' planned expedition here.

An earlier dispatch from Meyers was published online by UT San Diego here.

So, we called Lino, the chief from the Indian village we had visited, and were finally able to meet him in a poor neighborhood in Vilhena, upon our return at night. His instructions were somewhat vague: “. ..just in front of a tractor, one block after a bicycle shop…”. We finally identified three men in the dark, one just arriving home. A friendly dog received one of them, promptly carrying his baseball cap into the house, dropping it off, and returning for the backpack. The mutt struggled but was able to drag it through the dirt and into the doorway.

We took Lino to a local bar. He is already a city slicker, baseball cap, cell phone, and other trappings of urban life. His Portuguese, although heavily accented, was more easily understood than his father’s, Manuel. He assessed his father’s age as early eighties, a more modest figure than the number given by his daughter, 95, and wife, later on: 105!  Lino gave us more detailed explanations about the river. His wife was undergoing treatment for a disease that he could not explain well, but was out of the hospital already.
Rondon’s bridge was not at the village but a few kilometers downstream. Two tree trunks crossing the river are still there apparently, but the length, 20 meters (about 20 yards), is the same. The river turned into a marsh downstream and then reemerged, a couple of meters wide at first. This was also described by Candice Millard and Roosevelt: the river went underground in places. Beyond the true Rondon bridge, he could go down by motor boat for about one day until a major waterfall is reached. His tribe tried to go down from the village but got stuck in the marsh, and the old women had said, peremptorily: “It cannot be crossed. The legs sink until the knees. We took two days.”

Lino accepted to take us to the waterfall. He knows a fellow that lives there and apparently the larger fish cannot get upstream past that point. But I was interested in the entire journey, all the way to the Aripuanan River, following the memorable expedition. He looked at me for an instant, fear in his little eyes hiding behind the baseball cap: “I can’t go there. The Cinta Larga live there.”

So, things had changed much and yet so little in one hundred years. The Parecis plateau had become one of the richest agricultural expanses of Brazil. In Vilhena, personal trainers sculpted the derrieres of the local belles and happy kids returned from karate classes in the evening and wolfed down pizza slices. And 200 km from there, the Cinta Larga, the same ones that had killed Rondon’s dog and trailed the original expedition, still terrorized the less belligerent Indian tribes. “But if we can transport my boat beyond the marsh, we can go to the waterfall,” he said.

He sipped the beer, hoping that we would offer him a second bottle, and eyed the scantily clad waitress. Naif complimented her on her hardiness, since the night was chilly. We took her picture, as her father, the bar owner, watched us with an expression that was less than friendly. Then, we bailed out and took Nilo back to his wife. Before parting, he asked for some help to pay for her medicine, and we obliged. I also gave him some chocolates for the peccary girl and promised that we would return. I committed myself to plant 10 orange trees in the village, a habit that I have acquired over the years.

Back in the truck and on our way to a sophisticated restaurant, Naif explained that the Cinta Larga occupied a large swath of land along the river. It is called the Roosevelt reserve. He confirmed that this region was rich in diamonds and that South African geologists were scouting the area in rented pick-up trucks. “The Cinta Larga know about the illegal miners and come by their camps every now and then. They ask for money or diamonds and usually get them. If not…”

He then told me a story that was fascinating for the sheer terror of it. In a recent incident, a miner tried to cheat the Indians and swallowed his diamonds. They simply slaughtered him, field dressed him, and retrieved the gems from his stomach.

“Many cases like this take place. We never hear from them,” he continued after I mentioned a massacre that took place a few years ago.

“They are the pit bulls of the Indians,” he concluded philosophically. I thought of Lino’s father and the deep scar in his arm. So, we have a plan to go down the first 150 km of the river. What about the other 850 km? I close my eyes and imagine the scene, perfect for a Tarantino movie. A Cinta Larga painted in red and black, clubs down a miner and systematically inspects the entrails until the pebbles are found. Definitely, luck was on Roosevelt’s side, since only a dog was killed. Or perhaps it was Rondon’s gifts left hanging at their campsites as a proper payment for passage.  

A previous dispatch can be found here.

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