Aziz told us all about the summit. He said that the American President was not very popular there, but I guess we all knew that. Marlon explained to us that the Japanese word "arigato" comes from the Portuguese "obrigado" - brought by the Portuguese traders to the Far East in the Middle Ages. Portuguese words seem to pepper the Japanese language. For example, "tempura" comes from the Portuguese "tempero" (spice).
The drive in Marlon's car was an adventure. To get to the road you take a ferry across the river - car and all. There are only two ferry trips a day, so you don't want to miss it. After that there's this incredibly messed up road. Some of the potholes were almost as wide as our car.
It was a pretty wild ride. Marlon took it really really fast, because, he said, he wanted to get to the tributary by sunset. I considered that very thoughtful of him, under the circumstances. There were, of course, no seatbelts.
We got to the tributary just as it was starting to get dark. We were way in the Jungle now, but it was still sort of "civilization". When we arrived all these little kids came out and stared at us. The city was long gone. It felt great.
Which is always, of course, when things start to go wrong.
Trying to recover our injured dignity, we transferred everything into the boat - gasoline (and paddles!), food, flashlight, my bag and my guitar, and of course us. Then Marlon hooked up the gas to the motor, pumped up the hand siphon, and - nothing happened.
This nothing continued to happen for about fifteen minutes. Various village guys rowed up to our little boat, and one by one they looked at the siphon, pulled the motor starter, looked and the siphon again, nodded something in Portuguese, and then let the next guy on to do the same thing. No go. Finally, a big fat guy in a little boat piloted over to us.
"That's the Mechanic," said Marlon in reverent tones. "He'll fix it!" I think every town since the world began has had a "Mechanic", except once upon a time they used to call them magicians, and you and I now call them computer gurus.
Sure enough, the mechanic saw right off that the siphon was switched backwards - Marlon had been trying to pump gas FROM the motor INTO the gas jug, which turns out to be not nearly as useful as going the other way. In one quick motion the Mechanic unplugged the gas line, flipped the siphon valve, sucked into the line to draw out the air, replugged the gas line, and in about ten seconds we were on our way. No charge.
Fortunately, we had remembered to bring a flashlight. And batteries! I put the batteries in the flashlight, feeling very relieved and useful, all at the same time. Quite a little scare for a moment there, I thought. But nothing to worry about now!
Of course the flashlight didn't work.
Trying to stay calm, I took apart the flashlight, made sure the batteries were in the right way, put the flashlight together. Still didn't work. Then Marlon did the same, with no better luck. Altogether we did this about five times. No use. Now we were in trouble.
A few minutes later we were speeding up the by now extremely dark river in a very somber and worried mood. Just for the hell of it I picked up the flashlight (which was still stubbornly refusing to work), unscrewed the back, glared into it really fiercely, and rescrewed on the back. Then it worked just fine. Hah! Guess I scared that flashlight into business. Must have been the jungle coming out in me.
I kept seeing lots of alligators, in fact we were surrounded by alligators! This made me very happy at the time, but in retrospect I suppose it could be seen as not entirely a good thing.
I started to wonder at that point where exactly "here" was. Were we (dare I say it) lost? But it turned out that the problem was just an unusually low water level. That particular tree was normally under water.
Of course this meant that our little channel might very well turn out to be above water, and therefore impassable! With this new worry firmly in our minds, we reached the channel. Just as we turned into it, and I felt the boat scrape against the bottom, I spotted another alligator.
"Give me the flashlight," Marlon said. Somewhat oblivious, thinking he wanted to see the cool alligator, I handed over the flashlight. But as he took the flashlight he stepped out of the boat.
"I've got to see if it's deep enough for the boat to get through," he explained.
"But aren't you afraid of stepping on alligators?" I asked.
"No, not alligators," he said. "Snakes."
Nervously I watched him make his way slowly in about a hundred feet, then slowly wade back. Fortunately, he did not step on any snakes, but he did not have good news. "No good, we'll have to go around." Turns out there was a deeper channel much further down the river. Soon we were on our way again.
The last leg of our journey was through an enormous and beautiful lake. Suddenly the stars in the night sky opened up above and around me, and I was aware of the universe stretching out in all directions from our little boat. I felt very big and very small all at the same time.
We had arrived. Firmly grabbing my bag in one hand and my guitar in the other, I stepped out of the boat. And promptly slipped and fell flat on my back, right back into the boat. So much for great entrances.
Marlon works with a man named Chico who lives with his wife and five sons in a little house next to the lodge. None of Chico's family has ever been more than a few miles away from here. The lodge itself has several little rooms, and can comfortably hold about nine people, but he said he once housed thirty for a one night party. Presumably they were very small people. There are outhouses and showers, a clothes line. The view of the lake is magnificent, especially from the hammocks on the front porch. Right now I was the only guest.
The moon seemed to rule here. At one moment a huge bird was silhouetted against the moon, and in the next we passed under a dead tree with a beautiful cobweb draped gracefully over its many branches. As we paused to admire it, drifting slowly, the moon passed right behind the dead tree, and I could see the delicate patterns of moonlight rippling through the web to bathe our little boat.
If you get it just behind the head you're all right, because then it knows it can't reach to bite you, so it just stays quiet until you loosen your grip. But if you miss, or if it had already started to move so you got it by the middle, then you have to pull your hand away real fast. Alligator bites are incredibly bad for you - they inject every bacteria in the Amazon right into your bloodstream. Marlon says he's only been bitten once. In a few hours his arm had swelled up like a balloon.
Marlon said you should only catch the little ones - up to about two feet long. The big ones you leave alone.
Alligators are immensely cool creatures. They look just like their pictures. If you rub them firmly on the nose they will slowly open their jaws while you hold them, and you can examine their impressively sharp teeth.
Alligators do not have tongues (fact!).
Now here's the best part. You lie an alligator flat on its back in your rowboat. You gently rub its stomach for awhile. Then you tap with a slow and steady beat on the floor of the boat. At this point the alligator will close its eyes and go to sleep.
You can let go of it then, it won't go anywhere. It will just lie on its back with its eyes closed and nap peacefully. Marlon says they'll stay that way as long as he's ever waited.
To wake it, you grab it just behind the head again. The alligator wakes up instantly, but right away it realizes that you've got it, so it quiets down immediately (but now with its eyes wide open) and waits to see what your next move will be. When you're done bothering the poor little critter you just put it back in the water and let go. It'll swim away faster than you can blink.
It was Saturday night, and there was a dance. It was in a barn in a field by the lake. The barn was up on stilts because the lake floods sometimes. You had to watch where you stepped in the dark - by day the field was a cow pasture. We thought for a moment that the guy at the door was there to take entrance money, but it turned out he was just checking the men for hidden knives, in case anybody had had too much to drink.
On the way in, Marlon said hi to everybody. Everybody here knows Marlon, and I think they look up to him. He introduced me to them as his Americano friend, so nobody would expect me to speak Portuguese. One young woman gave me a big smile and called me something in Portuguese. Marlon told me afterwards that she was saying in a kind of off-color slang that she thought I was cute. He said that the women here are very aggressive (it's usually the women who make passes at the men), and that she was basically saying she wanted to sleep with me. I suppose I could learn to really like this place.
Once inside, the party was nothing like I'd expected. There were people of all ages, from about eleven to about fifty. Everybody (and I really mean everybody, except for me and Marlon) was dancing the lambada. It was funny to watch the eleven year old boys and girls who obviously didn't like each other yet, but who were swiveling their hips together along with the big folks just to show how grown up they were.
It all seemed strangely familiar. Suddenly it occurred to me how this was exactly like neighborhood gatherings anywhere, and that when it comes to people hanging out together having a good time, cultural variation doesn't come into it all that much. I guess that's obvious, but it's still a great thing.
Our host came over and Marlon introduced me. He said something and Marlon told me he was inviting us to have a beer, which I thought was swell. On our way to the bar he said something else, which turned out to translate roughly as "by the way, the beer is 3000 cruzeiros." But it was ok, because the beer was really good. Besides, the bar was out in the field, there was a great breeze from the lake, and the night was fine.
As long as you watched where you stepped.
We drifted for about ten minutes more, watching the forest awaken around us, then we headed in for breakfast.
Chico, who knows everything about the jungle, led the way. For the jungle walk he wore shorts and a tee shirt and big black rubber rain boots. He carried a Machete. We stopped along the way while they showed me all kinds of things about the jungle. To get drinking water, even in the dry season, you can cut off the end of a fat hanging vine. If you jiggle the cut piece fresh cool water flows out. It's delicious. After we drank our fill, of course we all took turns swinging on the vine (they are amazingly strong).
Then I watched in awe as Chico squatted down to chop a big leafy plant in three places to get two equal lengths about two feet long each. He wove together the leaves of the two pieces, and then cut and tied on two thin vines to make shoulder straps. In seven minutes he had made a really strong and light carrying basket, which I happily volunteered to carry on my back in case we found any neat stuff.
"You've got to be kidding," I thought. But they were both looking at me, and here I was in the Amazon Jungle, and I had already played with alligators. I guess this felt like a moment of truth. Sure I could catch an alligator, anybody can catch an alligator. But was I willing to cast aside my city ways and take the plunge into the very soul of this wild and beautiful place? Was I ready to eat a bug?
I ate it. One bite and it popped in my mouth like a grape. Tasted like coconut. I recommend them highly.
Then we got in the boat, headed out to the very middle of the lake for a long refreshing swim, after which Marlon took me in the boat to show me where the school will be.
You see, most of the children here (or adults for that matter) can't read or write. Now that civilization is making its inexorable way to this little village, Marlon thinks these kids had better be prepared for the world they are about to be plunged into. So he has been going around for the last year raising money for a schoolhouse, getting support, talking to builders. A friend of his has agreed to donate a piece of land by the lake. Construction is going to start the next month, and will be finished by September. Like I said, he is an amazing man.