I imagined the stories I could tell when I got back to Europe,
about naked Indian women, exotic fruits, dangerous trips
All this embellishing of my personality swiftly ended when a snake
slithered out of the undergrowth. I ran screaming back to the bus.
So much for the brave travel writer.
By Philip Blazdell
I was dreaming that I was cruising, rather majestically, down the Yangtze, the sun was
beating down on me and the beer was, by Chinese standards agreeably cold, when a sudden
explosion bought me back to the land of the living.
It was 6 AM and I was somewhere between Fortaleza and Belém, this thought alone seemed
to cover the whole range of geographical possibilities. The driver slammed on the air
breaks and bought the shiny yellow bus to a grinding halt. The six of us who made up the
entire contingent of the passengers sleepily followed the driver off the bus and into the
early morning mist. We were, quite honestly, in the middle of nowhere. The road stretched
behind and in front of me into oblivion. The early morning mist was just beginning to be
burnt off by the first rays of the sun and only the grumbles and mutterings of the driver
disturbed this primeval calm.
Even from my limited experience with cars I could see that the tire was indeed shredded
and quite beyond repair. So, we all piled back into the bus and let the driver drive
another 20 km to test this hypothesis extensively. Indeed, it was as I had guessed
shredded (large bits of rubber strewn across the highway seemed a bit of a give-away for
me) and after a bone-grinding hour we once more came to a halt.
As our driver began to dig around in the cabin for the jack and spanners he complained
bitterly to me about having driven coaches for 25 years and that this was the first time
this had ever happened. I didn’t tell him this kind of thing happens reasonably often to
me for fear of walking the rest of the way and I let him have his moan.
I left the driver and the other passengers fiddling with the jack and getting covered
in oil and mud from the spare tire whilst I walked back down the road to take some
pictures. As I snapped away I imagined myself to be some heroic figure, alone in the
Brazilian rainforest, armed only with my trusty penknife and my wits. I imagined the
stories I could tell when I got back to Europe, about naked Indian women, exotic fruits,
dangerous trips to forbidden frontiers in dugout canoes and the wild animals I had seen.
I liked the idea of naked Indian women especially. All this embellishing of my
personality swiftly ended when a snake slithered out of the undergrowth and across the
road. I ran screaming back to the bus, much to the amusement of the driver, who was now
covered in oil, and complaining about his new white shirt. So much for the brave travel
The Amazon. Even the word has a romantic sound to it. It is perhaps one of the most
evocative words in the English Language (after, of course, naked Indian women.) It is an
area that everyone seems to have an opinion about, whilst few people can claim first hand
knowledge. I had been into the jungle just once before, a few years ago when I took a
gloriously drunken boat ride out of Manaus. I was returning this time for other reasons,
and I thought I should at least try and make a token effort of getting to the heart of the
When we think of the Amazon we normally think of vast tracts of virgin forest, and a
lack of development. This is not always the case and there is evidence that the Amazon
basin had been densely populated when the Europeans arrived. Scientists now believe that
the Indians had learnt not only how to survive in the hostile environment but how to
cultivate it. Charles Clement, researcher at the government’s Amazon research institute,
INPA, says the Indians domesticated a large number of wild plants (one of them was the
pineapple) to make them more productive. But the arrival of the Europeans led to the ruin
of the Indians, and the rainforest reverted to wild.
Perhaps one of the first Europeans to visit the area was mercenary and adventurer
Francisco de Orellana who crossed the entire Amazon basin in search of a fabled golden
city. Instead of gold he discovered a tribe of bare breasted women that he described as
‘the tribe of women alone’, the legendary Amazons after whom the forest is named. The
thought of bare breasted women was enough to send me off on another adventure, and
perhaps, I thought, I could find some gold knocking around whilst I was there as well.
European naturalists who traveled to Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries marveled at
the exuberance of the rainforest, which they saw as an empty paradise created by God
without the intervention of man. Baron von Humboldt, one of the first European naturalists
to visit the Amazon basin, wrote home to Germany in 1799: "What an extravagant
country we are in. Amazing plants, electric eels, armadillos, monkeys, parrots . . . we
have been running around like fools. For the first three days we could not settle on
Even Charles Darwin spoke of his "rapture" as he wandered by himself through
the forest: "I collected a great number of brilliantly colored flowers, enough to
make a florist go mad the air is deliciously cool and soft."
The "empty" Amazon also attracted adventurers in search of El Dorado, like
the ill-fated British colonel Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in 1925 while looking for a
lost city, or, more recently, the thousands of wildcat prospectors who overran the
Yanomami reserve in their frenzied hunt for gold. The turn of the century rubber boom made
fortunes for a few, but for 30,000 Indians used as slave labor it all too often meant
death, although it was the technology they had developed which produced the latex.
Rush Goes On
One hundred years later, Asian logging companies have joined the Americans and the
Europeans in stripping the forest of mahogany and other hardwoods, and researchers from
major pharmaceutical companies, eager to find the ingredients for new miracle drugs in
Amazon plants, target the knowledge of indigenous communities, where shamans are the
repositories of centuries of plant knowledge. Strange stories began to percolate slowly
into the press about stolen DNA, scared sites being disturbed and the illegal selling of
native blood. It read more like pulp fiction then hard news and tugged at my scientific
In the heady mix of intrigue, empty rhetoric and outright lies that make up Brazilian
politics the Amazon region has become a topic of considerable lobbying power. Successive
Brazilian governments have seen the rainforest’s unplanned exuberance as a challenge and
tried to discipline it with roads and settlements, subsidizing the burning of the forest
to make way for cattle ranches; turning its giant rivers into waterways for huge grain
barges: installing a free trade zone to swell the Amazon capital of Manaus with a
sprawling circle of shantytowns, peopled by migrants from riverside villages.
While the G7 countries have put millions of pounds into Brazil to protect indigenous
lands in the Amazon rainforest, inside Brazil a powerful lobby of mining and logging
companies is seeking to overturn this protection. In congress, rightwing representatives
are calling for the reduction of Indian reserves, while a senator from the Amazon state of
Roraima has presented a bill to provide amnesty for goldminers who have committed crimes
while "exercising their profession in indigenous or environmental conservation
areas". This would include the goldminers found guilty of genocide after murdering 18
Yanomami Indians. The rest of the world can only watch and shake their heads as vast
tracts of forest disappear each year.
Unfortunately, the government of social democrat president Fernando Henrique Cardoso is
so weakened by the recent financial crisis and the infamous Central Bank scandal that, in
order to secure support from the rightwing "Amazon bloc" in congress, he seems
prepared to renege on his commitment to demarcate and defend Indian lands.
It is not only the Brazilian right wing the indigenous people are up against. The UK
rightwing think tank, IEA, has just published a booklet called The Myth of the Noble
Eco-Savage, claiming that if left to their own devices, native peoples destroy the
environmentwhile if collective land rights are replaced by private property,
It would appear that difficult times are ahead, and this was another reason to visit
the area now, to see for myself this ecologically important region before too much damage
had been done. I also had more personal reasons for going off on my own again.
I had become increasingly sucked into Brazilian politics and it was beginning to take
its toll on me. My normally calm academic life had been turned into a maelstrom of
strikes, political meetings and empty rhetoric of both sides trying to calm the embittered
professors who were threatening to strike again against their difficult working conditions
and lack of pay. I wanted to work, to teach and to do my research, but the political
powers that be, were maneuvering me more and more away from my lab and into the political
arena. Everything I did had to be seen in the light of a political gesture and was
accordingly assessed. A more profound person might have found all this terrible exciting,
but for me it was just a bore, and well beyond my comprehension. The tension most days was
palatable. In São Paulo, a world away, the police opened fire with tear gas and rubber
bullets. ‘PROTEST’ and ‘REVOLUTION’ screamed the newspapers.
One day my normal bus ride to university was diverted due to a protest which had
blocked the main street, and access to my favorite restaurant. This set the tone for the
next month and the normally calm streets of Fortaleza were thick with talk of urban
uprising, civil unrest and intrigue. The landless people who had occupied the streets,
setting up their camp outside the police stationwhich I thought was a nice touch,
seemed nice enough and I spent an afternoon chatting with them about their issues and
They told me that events had been building up nicely since a Brazilian court acquitted
three senior military policemen of the massacre of 19 peasantsdespite the jury’s
belief that the men were responsible for one of the most violent episodes in the country’s
Television cameras had unfortunately captured the police officers firing into a crowd
of poor rural workers, led by the Landless Movement (MST), who were demonstrating on a
road at Eldorado do Carajás, a small town in the northern state of Pará. The MST, which
has been dubbed, amongst other things, Marxist revolutionaries, and is one of the largest
and most effective grassroots movements in the world, responsible for securing land titles
for about a million peasants, took this in the spirit it was intended and organized their
own protests. In Fortaleza this took the form of camping across the main road and spending
the day facing down the nervous looking police.
The jury of seven men told the judge that while they were convinced Colonel Mário
Pantoja, Major José Maria Oliveira and Captain Raimundo Almendra were guilty, there was
not enough evidence to convict them. The police officers were in charge of the troops who
shot into the crowd of 2,500 landless farm workers to break up a peaceful demonstration.
João Pedro Stédile, leader of the Landless movement (MST), said the acquittal shamed
the country. "The judge will have blood on his hands if more peasants are killed in
Pará," he said, "He has declared impunity for those who commit crimes in the
After the verdict, hundreds of MST supporters chanted "murderers, murderers",
then charged through Belém (the capital of Pará) throwing stones at police. The police
responded with plastic bullets and brutality which to me seemed both heavy handed and
The whole situation seemed to be a tangled web of lies, exaggerated reporting and
hyperbole. After making a nuisance of myself for a few weeks and asking everyone about
this, and hearing 100 different stories, I decided that if I was ever to understand the
situation, and if my life was to get back to normal, I would have to travel to the state
where all this happened and try to learn some more. Perhaps, I thought, that if I went
there and talked to the people and see the way they live then I would understand.
Belém was now only a few hours away and I was beginning to feel a little tense. Would
I find a city at war, people roaming the streets with stones and gun totting police, and
more importantly, would I find a nice bar close to my hotel? I was less worried about the
police than not finding a bar as I have a healthy respect for uniformed men with guns, and
besides I had already witnessed my first shooting in Brazil, and didn’t think things could
get much worse.
The shooting had happened outside my apartment building a few days before I left for
Belém. It was close to midnight and I was leaning out my bedroom window watching the
street below when a lone motorcyclist pulled up and emptied six shots into a guy on the
other side of the street who crumpled in slow motion onto the street and began bleeding in
a hideous manner which looked nothing like any film I have ever seen.
The motorcyclist sped off long before the police arrived leaving only a man dying on
the street and six empty cartridge cases. The police arrived and calmly interviewed a few
people, called an ambulance and flirted a little with some of the girls who had spilled
out the nearby restaurants to watch. It was just another night in Brazil, but for me it
changed a lot of my ideas and slowly over the next few days my confidence began to drain
I was therefore more than a little nervous of being alone in Belém. My guidebook
didn’t actually say ‘come to Belém and die’, it stopped just short of that, but it has to
be the second most paranoid piece of travel literature I have ever read (the first being
anything by the tourist office in Salvador which has a unique sales pitch which is
somewhere along the lines of ‘Salvadora great place to get your throat cut’). My
sense of dread increased as I wandered down the quiet side street to my hotel through
piles of discarded hypodermic needles and the throb of construction workers sledgehammers.
In a way, when I eventually found it, I was quite disappointed that the hotel had a roof
and four walls. It seemed to spoil the mood somewhat.
No sooner, had I dropped my bag in reception of the quaint little hotel Le Massilia,
the jovial French owner Franck bounded out, wrung my hand and welcomed me (in French) like
a long lost brother. His enthusiasm was infectious (as was his accent) and he dragged me
off to see my spotlessly clean room complete with hot shower, air conditioning and TV. The
fridge, Franck was pleased to point out to me, was stocked with the finest French wines
and vintage champagnes. ‘Zee English’, he smiled wiping a bottle of Krug lovingly, ‘zee
are like the French you know, zee wine, zee moonlight, zee romance of the jungle’, and
then noticing that I was actually alone, ‘never mind, I have a video of zee world cup
final instead if you are bored.’
Shortly later I was pounding the streets soaking up the late afternoon sun. No one
bothered to give me a second look as I went striding round the city. It seemed calm,
content and surprisingly clean. The streets bustled with markets, hawkers and color. On
one street corner a group of beautiful school girls stood gossiping about a forthcoming
physics test, on another a beautiful Indian woman was showing her baby to some friends
whilst the traffic police, in their worn combat boots and yellow hats, looked on
peacefully. It seemed as far away from a center of intrigue and chaos as I could have
imagined. Everyone I spoke to, from the coconut seller, to the shopkeepers to the
schoolgirls seemed content and happy.
I jumped into a taxi to go to the old fort. I have never met a taxi driver anywhere in
the world who does not have a strong political opinion and thought I could get some juicy
political gossip whilst stuck in traffic.
‘So, you want to go to the old town? It’s a bit passed its prime I am afraid’
‘Tell me about the people without land and their movement’
‘I guess, if they gave it a lick of paint it might be o.k.’
‘So what do you think about the police and the troubles, what does it really mean?’
‘You know, I think its terrible about the paint, its not even a big job ’
‘And the political future for the region’.
At this the driver turned to face me, which was a little worrying as we were hurtling
the wrong way down a one way street at the time, ‘do you think red or green would look
better for that building’. I gave up
The next morning, after a huge breakfast I was wandering round the famous Mercado
Ver-o-Peso, which is one of the most colorful markets in South America. The name comes
form the Portuguese who used to watch the weight (ver o peso) in order to impose
taxes. I wandered deeper and deeper into the market, past the exotic fruits, the small
stalls selling sizzling food whose spicy aroma made my taste buds drawl and my sphincter
twitch, past the medicinal plants, past the stalls selling all manner of fetishes and
towards the river itself. I climbed onto the railings and let the chaos and smells of the
market drift out of my consciousness.
I have a deep fascination for rivers. I can spend hours pouring over maps following
their progress, wandering how it would be to travel on them, to know their twist and turns
intimately and leisurely cruise their lengths between exotic ports of call with nothing to
do but lay in my hammock and make witty observations. Without a doubt the Amazon, being
the world’s largest river, holds my attention like no other and I had intended to hire a
local boat and spend the day pottering around some of the tributaries pretending I was
Indiana Jones. However, for the first time in my life, I had trouble finding a boat
willing to take me out (the last time I had even gone near a harbor was in Hong Kong where
I was kidnapped by a sampan owner and forced to cruise Aberdeen harbor to watch the sunset
for hours on end) and so instead I settled for a day trip on the mighty river, which I
booked through a local tourist agency.
As the boat chugged away from the docks, the 21st century slipped away. The
two other passengers scanned the jungle with high-powered binoculars as I joined the
captain in the wheelhouse. Within a few minutes the city had faded away to be replaced by
simple wooden dwellings, the putt-putt-putt of small outboard motors on simple native
canoes and the sounds of the jungle. A flick of color here and there suggested parrots
returning to roost.
As our boat rounded a bend in the river two small beautiful mahogany colored children
came swimming out to meet us. ‘Where are you from’, they called out to me in a thick
accent. ‘London, England’, I shouted back. ‘That’s far?’ asked the older one, ‘yes very
far’ I replied. They swam off howling with laughter.
We stopped after a few hours of apparently aimless meandering along flooded tributaries
in a small village. A local guide, whose sun burnt skin give him the appearance of an old
peach stone, greeted us warmly with a huge bowl of Brazil nuts and twinkling eyes. He lead
us deeper into the jungle as he explained more about the legends of the forest, the
history of the many exotic fruits which were growingly abundantly around us and how life
had changed in the last twenty years.
Later, as the rain lashed down, and we squatted in his simple wooden home listening to
the squabbling of the monkeys in the eaves and the screams of children playing in the
rain, I asked him what he thought about the landless movement and the other intrigues
which seemed to be as much as part of the Amazon region as the mighty river itself. He
sighed, and laid down his machete that he had been using to shell nuts for me. ‘Things
must change’, he told me, ‘but for better or for worse, I can’t really say what will
happen, only time will tell.’ he then smiled, ‘ but remember this is Brazil, and anything
By the time I returned to Fortaleza a few days later the protestors had gone, the roads
were calm again and the short period of civil unrest seemed to have been forgotten. The
old man’s words echoed in my head ‘In Brazil anything is possible.’
The author is a regular contributor to numerous travel magazines. He has traveled
widely in Brazil and can often be found trying to go from A to B in the most difficult
manner imaginable whilst using someone else’s money. His only regret is that the coach
companies don’t offer frequent flyer miles. Articles by the author ranging from Tibet to
China to Africa can be found at www.bootsnall.com.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org,
and promises, if he is not away falling of the edge of the map somewhere, to write back.