Amazon river photo by Jarda Cervenka

Drinking in Iranduba

by Jarda Cervenka

The first thing I did when the canoe turned the corner was wash the paint off my face. Minutes ago the wife of the chief of "my" Santere-Mowe Indians had said goodbye in Portuguese, dipped her forefinger into the seed pod of uruku and, with pensive expression, standing on her toes, painted one vertical slash on my chin and one oblique on each of my cheeks. I wondered if she truly wanted to safeguard me from the evil spirits or if she just made good fun of the whiteface. I knew I did not want protection from the one spirit, cachaca, the sugar cane distillate I craved after behaving so well for so long, and which waited for me about eight hours downstream in Iranduba. No, less than that, since in the rainy season the Amazon goes like a shot, about six miles an hour, before she joins with Rio Negro in Manaus.

My pilot, an untalkative caboclo (local mix of Indian and Caucasian) named Sergio, steered us perfectly, smoking some, humming and exuding the satisfaction of a man who is one with the river, who knows the stream's navigational secrets as if they were inscribed into his genetic code. Looking at him, I knew he could happily subsist forever on only bananas, beer and smiles, all of which we carried aplenty for the trip. He steered us with the careless abandon of a child but still missed all the sawyers and stray logs at least by an inch.

We floated in the silence of worshipers, through cathedrals of trees, with buttresses in water and crowns in clouds, past "lakes" carpeted with blooming water hyacinths like purple meadows, past waterfalls I remember from romantic paintings of Paradise, and taking shortcuts through flooded forests while navigating between the tree-crowns, where monkeys shrieked in panic. Giant otters approached us, curious and smiling. Unexciting, motionless caimans wallowed by the shore, fitting well into the jurassic landscape, and birds were everywhere in such variety to drive an ornithologist to distraction. River dolphins in pairs, and solitary, displayed their pink sides and bellies, breathing asthmatically without the happy grin of their cousins in the sea.

Just at the moment I had decided to just float down the Amazon for the rest of my life, Sergio turned into a side channel, igarape, which looked to me as any other of hundreds we had passed by on our way. But he knew. The igarape surprised me with its sudden shade, hum of insects, bizarre philodendrons and lianas reaching at us as if alive; I could touch the exuberant bromeliads. It felt like a secret passage. Sergio widened his permanent smile, opened another can of Kaiser beer, and before finishing it, we landed between kids splashing and floating garbage, next to two sinking barkas and one large sunken one. We heard the sounds of semi-civilization, and smelled the town, the homey smoke and whiff of burned oil, and home brewed beer, and nose-stinging scent of rotting cabbage. We had arrived in Iranduba.

To find my acquaintance Renato was an easy task. Most of his evenings are spent in Zazoeira, the "club". The club was a wooden structure without architect, without furniture, and without walls--save the one behind the bar. It was air-conditioned passably with the breeze from the jungle only feet away. My attention was attracted to the floor made of dark tropical hardwood which years of stomping by the feet of sweating dancers and other natural phenomena had transformed into something like semi-gloss ebony. I imagined panelling made of this stuff for some millionaire CEO, the beauty and the price of it. The rest of this edifice was just the result of the infamous tropical carpentry.

I hugged Renato, made faces, sat down, and Renato ordered cachasa with an imperious voice and gesture one could use only mocking an old friend-waiter. A few months ago I met Renato in Manaus. He worked there, on and off, as a tourist guide, taking people to the forest, up different igarapes to catch-and-release caimans at night and piranhas at day. He had spent three years in San Francisco as a teenager, and had learned English and the ways of gringo there, which upon his return home, elevated his social standing permanently. He became an English speaking guide in demand, and ultimately, an owner of a car! To catch his breath and replant his feet on the native ground of the club Zazoeira he would return from Manaus to Iranduba as often as he could.

"How was it with the Indios? And mosquitoes?"

"Good, I learned a lot, Renato, a lot."

"You're like the German tourists, they want to know about everything."

"Is that bad?"

"No, is good. French are bad. They only want to know about dinner. And never tell you if they like anything. Know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I know. But can you ask the moso, your friend over there, to make me one great caipirinha? Por favor. Not caipirissima!"

So, in a minute I got that creation of fabulous simplicity: a double shot of cachaca, with a spoon of sugar, crushed wedges of lime (vitamin C, mind you!) and crushed ice. I thanked him profusely, knowing how pleasantly it would dissolve the mucous in my passages.

"Indians, they know much, they are not scarred of the forest. Like some of the caboclos are here. Huh?" I suspected I might provoke my friend to more lively discourse about Indians.

"Well, people from around here, they know the forest very well, too, it's their livelihood, you know. But there are things, strange things which happen in the jungle, so some people become scared. Is true."

The palaver continued in a direction I couldn't predict.

"Like being scared of curupira. Right?" I suggested.

"Curupira?" He shook his head in a pantomime of disagreement.

"Is it true, what people say," I continued, "that he is a young and very handsome boy with red hair, that guards the forest, seduces the traveler off the path, and when one follows one gets lost, forever?" Renato still shook his head. Undeterred I continued, forcing it (as is allowed to drunks). "I bet it might be true that his feet are pointing backwards--so when one follows his tracks one wanders deeper and deeper into the bush...?"

Renato glanced at me sideways and with a sarcastic grin told me he didn't believe in any curupira, and also, if there was one, he wouldn't have only one eye, as some folks say. One eye? Nonsense. Renato is a modern man, he had been in America. So I decided not to push it, and just have a good time and another caipirinha.

"But, you know," Renato said, "there are some things one cannot understand well, so one has to believe, to be on the safe side ... and not to wade into any shit. I tell you what happened to me last year. And I want beer and not cachasa, one more would put me under the table."

Renato pulled the chair closer to me and lowered his voice. He had risen to my bait--or was just in a good storytelling disposition. I like this about the people, here. I could have listened forever to their narrating about the seven-colored serpent ruling the forest, about the Indian carver, blind from birth who carves perfect likeness of animals only from "tribal memory", about the terrible demise of a fisherman who made love with the river dolphin, about the poisonous ant conga in initiation ceremonies, and tale upon tale, depending how well their storytelling voice box was oiled with beverage. Since in all my years of living in an American suburb I could not recall hearing a single story of fantasy or of magical content I was, now, on a different planet.

It was about the same time in the season of rains a year ago, when Renato went with his father to visit an uncle who lived in a shack at the edge of the jungle about a mile up the igarape. When they arrived, uncle was half drunk, already. They had brought a piece of fried piraruku fish, good stuff, but uncle wanted only to drink more. They were arguing with him when they heard it. It must have been close, behind the shack, the distinct call "killy klee klee ... killy klee." Machinta pereira! A machinta pereira bird called from the jungle. The bird was feared by all. It has been traded about that it lures people deep into the jungle, then changes into a terrible old woman, a witch so vicious looking, that one flees away; running and crawling and never finding the way back. "Killy klee klee, kily klee," it wailed.

"Cinga! Cinga! Fuck, fuck you!" Uncle screamed. "I kill you sunavabitch, fuck...!" He got up. Renato and his father had tried to hold him down but he was a strong man, unstoppable now. He lurched out, crushed through the thicket. They heard him breaking branches ... then silence ... and then came the scream. Renato and his dad rushed into the thicket and managed to quickly find him.

"His eyes were big like an owl's, they did not blink, and he couldn't speak," Renato continued. "We lead him back, asked questions, but he just stared with those eyes, sank to the floor in the corner and did not move or even bat the eye." Renato imitated the unblinking stare. "He was a big man, strong, could wrestle caiman six feet long with his bare hands. But he just sat there silent, and even later, never told anybody what he saw...." Renato finished the beer and shook his head several times. He looked at me with his dark mestizo eyes, his crow's feet deepened, lips tight with corners down --as if asking me: What do you say to that?

I said: "I'll be damned."

Santere-Mowe Indians. Photo by Jarda Cervenka
People were wandering in and out of the club, some approached us, exchanged words with Renato while looking at me, and raised their hand with the thumbs-up, as is the pleasant habit here, in central Amazonia. We needed some food to go with the drinks, so Renato arranged for a plate of fried plantains and beans and murdered, blackened, pieces of beef, all sprinkled with farinha (fried manioc crumbs) and a fiery sauce of juice squeezed from grated manioc mixed with powdered hot peppers. It was a dish seasoned by flames from Hell, so we slurped and aerated wordlessly, raised our eyebrows and wiped off the tears, as if at a funeral.

"Wow, there goes a beautiful woman, amigo!" I opened my mouth in genuine admiration.

Renato smiled: "Gloria. Oh yeah, she is the best in Iranduba. Gloria Beatriz Ribeira de Nascimento, mon!"

She walked to the bar, straight like the palm for making blowguns, her helmet of hair absolutely black and glossy as if she had just emerged from agua negra. And with the face of an angel with some Indian blood. She couldn't be more than eighteen. In the crux of one arm she carried a baby, in the other hand she held a basket. She looked straight ahead.

"Where did she get such a beautiful face?" I asked. "And look at the baby!"

"She is mameluca--her mother is Indian, Santere-Mowe, and her father a white man from Manaus. He disappeared though ... did not give her his name. People say he was a German who had come here to tap the rubber.

"And the baby?"

There was a long pause which made me alert, despite my difficulty to focus well, caused by the active ingredient of caipirinha, the cachasa.

"The baby. How about her kid?" I asked again--and again I did not hear an answer. Now I could actually smell a story.

Renato finally leaned over the table and in a low, hoarsely conspiratorial voice told me, ".... esta nene do boto cor de rosa." He looked me into the eyes as if challenging me to challenge his statement. "Do boto!" He added.

"You're talking to me in Portuguese, Renato!"

"Oh, sorry, so sorry. The bebe ... is a child of a dolphin, bebe do boto, we say. ""A child ... fathered by the pink river dolphin?" I asked, incredulous, specifying the subspecies, to be sure.

"We believe it is true."

The beautiful woman passed by again on the way out. I looked at her baby. It was a girl, light skinned but with hair of her mother, she was perfectly formed, the object of desire of grandmothers all.

"Yeah, it happens," Renato looked at the high buttocks of passing-by Gloria Beatriz Ribeira de Nascimento with concentration.

I ordered banana chips and a round of Kaiser cerveja and heard the whole story.

Once in a while there are dance parties organized in the club Zazoeira. Caboclos come to drink and to dance forro, the dance they love with passion. A year ago, at the time when the Amazon floods everything, there was a big gathering of dancers and drinkers here. All able bodies from Iranduba took to the dance floor, visitors arrived in their canoes paddling from distant igarapes through igapos, the flooded forests. Beer (Antarctica Pilsen, Brahma, and Kaiser) and cachaca for the first hour trickled like the source of a mountain creek, then later flowed in an uninterrupted stream of a great river. Acquaintances and friends greeted each other with exuberance and thumbs-ups: how warming to the heart is to be with friends! Young women seemed to arrive in estrus, exuding receptive rowdiness, the depth of their eyes enhanced by charcoal and poorly concealed desires. Men came in shoes and some even in boots, their oiled hair reflecting the flames of women's eyes.

Then a white stranger arrived.

He mingled with people but did not dance. He was of different sort. Dressed in all white, 'blanco como muvem', Renato said, 'white like a cloud.' He was taller than anybody else and his white hat made him even more conspicuous. He had pushed the hat so low on his forehead nobody could see his eyes. Later, not a single person could recall making an eye contact with the alien.

Soon the suave man in white gained sight of Gloria. He stalked her, moving smoothly like an anaconda on the prowl. He talked to her between dances, he whispered, his unsmiling handsome face turned to her, at all times. This was the way of seduction.

Before the end of the celebration a few people saw Gloria leaving with the stranger. He pulled her. Holding his hand, she followed him to the shore of igarape. It has been well imagined by everybody in Iranduba what transpired next. How at the edge of water the white stranger removed his hat, and while kissing her changed into the dolphin--then pulled her down into the deep.

They stayed together only one night and a day but nine months later bebe was born to beautiful Gloria. People understood - she was not the first one in the history of the village to have a child fathered by the pink river dolphin.

"You might not believe it--but you saw the baby for yourself." Renato's storytelling dried his throat. "Beer!"

"Yes, I did see her. But tell me, why did the stranger in white cover his eyes with his hat?"

"He did not cover his eyes. He covered the blow-hole on his forehead!"

"Wow," was the only commentary I considered appropriate. A while later I asked: "Will Gloria have a chance to marry here, in Iranduba? With the baby like that... you know?"

"Of course. People here understand that life can be complicated, and magic things happen. Must happen ... sometimes." Renato was thinking, and it showed as a slight pain on his face. Then he brightened up. "To think of it--she just got married a couple weeks ago. Gabito, the son of the pharmacist got her, finally."

"Gabito?"

"Yeah, you American city folks would call it a 'great love.' He was after her since they were kids. Gabriel Garcia Marino. Is a good boy."

Afterwards, I did not remember well how the evening ended, how I got to bed, but I remembered the story.

The next day, I took a canoe down the igarape to the main channel. I floated in between the treetops of the flooded jungle, since I wanted tranquility, silence and to be alone. A small caiman, jacare, peered at me between the floating leaves, thinking he was invisible. Cute, for a reptile. A woolly monkey, strangely alone, like me, followed from branch to branch, for a while. Under one tree a hundred of white fallen blossoms floated, as if to mark an underwater celebration there. I was thinking about Gloria, her gentle face, her calm confidence gained from a newly acquired status--that of a married woman, about her beauty.

Then the surface of water bulged and a dolphin emerged next to my boat. He looked at me with his large human eye, turned on the side and dove without a splash, not to emerge again. This time I got disturbed. The rosy, pink belly he flaunted seemed so unnatural, feigned--it was obscene! And he should have covered his goddamned blow-hole, too!

I turned the boat around and paddled through the fallen white blossoms again.

My sentiment surprised me. I felt a surge of emotion: it was a gratefulness for the love which the pharmacist's son affirmed for beautiful Gloria Beatriz Ribeira de Nascimento.

2005 by Jarda Cervenka.
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Jarda Cervenka received degrees in medicine and genetics. He immigrated to Minnesota in l968. Since then he has been employed by The University of Minnesota, lived in Kenya, Japan and Nigeria and traveled extensively and intensively on five continents. His thinking and views have been influenced mainly by studies of diverse people and their culture, or lack of one.