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A Dream Bordello

A Dream Bordello

"You know what the people need most? A whorehouse!
I am going to retire from the police soon and I am going
to build the biggest and best whorehouse in the whole of Amazonas.
The whole country will know my name, I shall be famous."
By Philip Blazdell

As soon as term finished and the last of the papers were graded, I packed my rucksack
and hit the road. I was the perfect traveler, I had no definite plan and no definite
itinerary. I crammed three weeks of clothes, sleeping bag, cameras, maps, mosquito nets
and my hammock into my smallest traveling pack and left. It was as simple as that. It
always is.

By the time I arrived in Belém, 26 hours later, tired, hot and relieved to be away
from the office I had formulated a rough plan. I would travel north by bus, boat or foot
not stopping till I ran out of road. The simplicity of the plan appealed to me and I set
off in search of a boat.

The captain of the boat I eventually found, after a hot sticky afternoon trekking round
the grimy docks of downtown Belém, looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and surprise.
He was a big solid man, who unlike his ancient boat, which sat mournfully rotting in the
low tide, looked like he could deal with anything life cared to throw at him. He wasn’t
sure when he would be ready to leave, but yes he was going north and was prepared to take
some passengers, but why didn’t I want to fly?

As he left shaking his head and pocketing the 20 dollars we had agreed on for my
passage upriver he jerked his thumb towards the deserted deck and told me I could sleep on
deck that night instead of paying for a hotel. Later as the sun sank, the crew sprawled on
the creaking wooden dock playing cards by candlelight and drinking rum. As the stars began
to come out the crew drifted off and left me alone—totally alone. I climbed onto the
top deck, slung my hammock and listened to the lapping of the water against the hull.

The next morning, as the sun began to rise the stevedores arrived to load the boat.
They smiled at me, with taut rippling muscles homed from years of back breaking work, as
if it was perfectly normal to find a lone English man asleep on the top deck of a
perfectly deserted boat on the edge of the mighty Amazon river. I laid in my hammock
letting the early morning sun warm my stiff joints and bones, enjoying the pure luxury of
watching other people work.

By the time I had mustered sufficient energy to go in search of breakfast the quay was
piled high with every possible commodity you could imagine. The basics of daily life, such
as toothpaste, flour and several carcasses of beef were stacked precariously alongside
spare parts for a tractor, several engine blocks, six remolded tractor tires, four
outboard motors, case after case after case of beer, boxes of contraceptives and a whole
load of things which I am sure wasn’t really what I thought it was.

I walked off aimlessly towards the town in search of some food. The first shack I came
to outside of the boatyard was run by a wizened toothless old man of indeterminable age,
whose skin was so burnt by the sun that he looked vaguely like a peach stone that has been
left in the sun to dry. I warmed to him instantly.

He poured me a chilled cajá juice into a cracked dirty cup and invited me into
the shade of his living-room-cum-bedroom-cum-kitchen. His few possessions lay scattered on
the floor and a wide-eyed child laid feverishly in the hammock, which was strung from the
rafters. `I am happy’, he said as way of explanation to my unasked question, `what more
can a man aspire to than a view of the river, a roof over his head and the respect of the
community’.

The boat, the Bom Jesus (as in Jesus—will that really float ?) was still being
loaded 12 hours later and the stevedores seemed to be on their last legs as they staggered
up and down the quay with increasingly heavy and cumbersome loads. A few more passengers
had drifted onto the boat with their possessions tied in their colorful hammocks and began
to make themselves comfortable. I sat on the rail writing my diary, a few of the
passengers cast me doubtful looks clearly not accustomed to seeing a lone, and very
scruffy English man sitting half naked in the late afternoon sun scribbling away.

The quay was now alive with passengers, shipping officials rushing around with grubby
manifests talking ten to the dozen, stevedores throwing more boxes of crackers into the
hold and peddlers selling everything from savory pastries to toothpaste. Typically the one
salesman I wanted to come by, the beer man, was nowhere to be seen and I was forced to
slate my thirst with a bottle of warm mineral water. I thought: Theroux never has these
problems.

Just after 5 PM the engines spluttered to life and we slowly edged our way from the
dock in a cloud of diesel fumes and smoke. On the far bank of the river, which was just
visible through the evening’s heat haze and diesel fumes, a huge electrical storm was
beginning to brew. Fork lightening flickered across the sky, strobing the landscape into
elemental shades of black and charcoal. The night was still humid and amongst the 15 or so
hammocks that were strung on the top deck the air was thick and syrupy. The passengers
slumped in their hammocks swinging in the humidity, some took out ancient leather bound
bibles to read, whilst others instantly fell into deep peaceful sleep. I sat on the rail
with a slight breeze in my face as the boat grumbled and shuddered its way into the fast
midriver flow. Smells of cooking began to waft up from the deck below.

My first meal on the boat was surprisingly good. The chef was obviously talented as he
had managed to turn a bucket full of chicken entrails, some cold greasy spaghetti, some
macaroni and some crunchy farinha (a flour made from the local manioc root) into a
tasty meal. I climbed back on top and wiggled through the mass of hammocks in search of
some air. I had heard that this trip would take about a day, which seemed reasonable. The
original estimate from the captain had been 24 hours, but other passengers seemed
skeptical and gave me estimates ranging from three to five days, depending on traffic on
the river, breakdowns and such things. For the tourist with a fixed itinerary this might
cause problems. Timetables and plans have little meaning here where life is tied
inherently with the pace and tides of the river. As I had found in trying to track down a
boat, it is a land of myths—boats which are said to exist, don’t. Busses leave when
they are full and at no set times and captains potter up and down the river under their
own personal agendas and everyone accepts it for what it is—the life blood of this
region and an excellent way of traveling and meeting people. Merely being here implies an
adventurous spirit.

As the hot humid night wore on, the Brazilians began to warm to me and lost their
suspicions of my notebook and camera. They slowly began to open up to me, calling out the
names of two-shack towns we passed, asking me a million and one questions about my life
and primping and preening themselves every time they caught a glimpse of my camera.

Towards nine o’clock the passengers began to gravitate towards the back of the boat and
huddled round the television, which was bolted to the rafters. The huge parabolic
reflector dish which was mounted on the back of the boat, and looked like it had been
cobbled together from the leftovers from a low budget sci-fi movie, was carefully
positioned by a crew man who found that the best picture quality was achieved by
suspending an empty bottle of beer from the rim of the dish. The screen crackled into life
to polite applause just in time for us to catch the opening credits of the latest novela
(soap opera).

The deck was silent as the intrigues on screen unfolded, the jungle which was closing
in around us with thick foliage was forgotten and even the sound of parrots returning home
to roost was pushed to one side as the strange and surreal on-screen events unfolded. At
the front of the boat all was in darkness, the man at the wheel was staring keenly out
into the night, no lights or radar spoiled his view as we chugged along. I chose not to
think too deeply about the ramifications of this and retired to my hammock.

The next morning I sat on deck shivering as the sun came up. I was wrapped in almost
all of my clothes and chilled to the bone. A thin, vaguely menacing mist hung limply over
the river. I felt miserable and cold. There was no reason really for me to be here and I
suddenly felt terribly isolated amongst the gently snoring bodies. Slowly people began to
wake and the day-to-day bustle of the boat resumed. Ana, who had slung her hammock next to
mine, and was a source of endless facts, gave a mammoth yawn, stretched and passed me her
still sleeping baby whilst she went downstairs to wash. I paced around on the back deck of
the boat scared of waking the sleeping baby whom she was taking upriver to visit someone
or other—our conversation had gone round in circles long into the night leaving me
utterly confused. Her grandmother shot me a toothless grin, which obviously meant
something profound.

When Ana returned, relieving me of my charge, I fell into conversation with another
passenger who was something big in the military police. Despite the fact it was still
early in the day he pulled out a bottle of cane brandy and poured me a large shot. The
first shot had just begun to warm my aching bones when the second shot kicked in and I
began to feel a little better about life.

`I have a dream’, the policeman whispered conspiratorially to me, `there is so much
land here, so much potential. You know what the people need most?’, he took a long sip of
brandy, `A whorehouse! I am going to retire from the police soon, I am not a rich man, but
I have saved a little bit of money. I am going to go up river, buy a piece of land and I
am going to build the biggest and best whorehouse in the whole of Amazonas. The whole
country will know my name, I shall be famous and the people will be happy and contented.’
He poured me another large shot of brandy and left me sitting in the sun contemplating
this staggering revelation.

Traveling along the river is more than a pleasant way to spend a few lazy days. The
river provides the lifeblood of many towns and small villages, which have no other links
with the outside world. We stopped at one such small town later that morning. The whole
town had gathered on the small dock to wait for our arrival. The town, which consisted of
a few shacks huddled together in a particularly malarial looking bank of the river, rely
each week on the supplies, which the boat brings up.

Within a few moments of our arrival the crew and towns folk had unloaded 500 kg of
flour, several agricultural machines, two dozen cases of beer and cachaça and two
mysteriously large German sausages, which had suddenly appeared from the owners cabin in a
rather phallic gesture. One of the women I had been chatting to the previous night
suddenly appeared on deck in a beautifully tailored trouser suit, jumped nimbly onto the
dock and tossed her Chanel bag into a waiting pirogue and vanished off into the forest. I
stood blinking in the bright sun light. Half our cargo swapped for new passengers we were
off on our way again and the policeman was pouring me larger and larger shots of brandy.

These scenes of domestic normality played out on that sunny quay touched something
fundamental in me and made my spirit soar once more. The Amazon has undoubtedly changed
since the first Europeans arrived but it remains a region without compromise, the world in
its extreme. There are few places as huge and as wild. By admitting that its inhabitants
can drive, and that they are neither wiser nor purer nor stronger than you its power is
not diminished. It is fairer to judge the people who make their lives here squarely as
modern people and as equals.

They were born by chance in a hard land, at a hard time in its history, pretending
otherwise does them no justice. Despite all the scare stories I had read in the newspapers
I didn’t, on that day, see that that their world had grown too small and despite its
satellite dishes, its cellular phones, its trucks, and its televisions, Amazonas remained
unsubdued.

After another interesting lunch of farinha and chicken entrails I sprawled out
on the back of the boat and picked up my book. I had only read a few pages when I noticed
that two of the children who had been tearing about the boat with endless energy were
standing a few yards away staring at me intently. After a while they plucked up courage
and came a little bit closer. The older of the two asked me what I was doing and examined
my book with a mixture of respect, curiosity and suspicion. `Is it interesting?’, he asked
in a shy self conscious voice, and then quite unexpectedly plopping himself down next to
me, `can you read some of it to me?.’ `It’s in English’, I explained. This seemed to cause
him some problems as he screwed up his face and looked at me through eyes hard beyond his
years. I began to read in a slow clear voice. For twenty minutes or so he sat listening to
me as I read from `Crime and Punishment’. His mother and two of her friends came over to
listen as well. We chugged into the small hamlet of Breves just as I finished the chapter.
The two children were sleeping gently slumped against my shoulder. Their mother looked
relieved.

It was at the small town of Breves that I hit rock bottom. I put it down to lack of
sleep, a year or so of continual traveling, poor diet and a substantial lack of moral
character, but when I saw the millions of people who were spilling onto the boat and
slinging their hammocks with wild abandon from every possible nook and cranny I thought
`Do I really need to go through this?’ Claustrophobia, or more fear of crowds is a major
phobia of mine and the 60 or so people who were aw6kxtling for space (albeit in a lovely
Brazilian—this can only possibly end in a party—type of manner) sent me spinning
off in a cold sweat. I had never seen anything like it, not even traveling third class on
a Chinese boat. I looked at my bag, which was packed, and then back at the mêlée of
hammocks and than across the quay to the town trying to decide if I jumped ship here would
I get stuck, and if so for how long.

It took me a few moments to come to my senses and to think of the stories I could tell
when I got home and instead of fleeing I took out my camera and began to snap away. As we
nudged our way out of Breves the boat began to make sounds like an old person eating
custard, which didn’t seem at all encouraging. My journey suddenly seemed a trifle
frivolous.

A few drinks later, (I am never sure if I drink to travel or travel to drink) things
looked a lot better and I managed to write the word `homely’ in my diary without my hand
shaking too much. My spirits soared as we passed through some dense jungle, which was, for
once, close enough to the boat to be interesting. For a while we were followed by a
flotilla of simple dug out canoes, each one piloted by a young girl of indeterminable age
and determinable beauty. My friend the policeman had joined me at the rail and spent an
amusing hour or so attempting to get the girls to show him their breasts or inviting them
to join him in something that I just couldn’t manage to translate. Its nice to know the
fate of the country is in such stable hands. I crawled into my hammock and thought: `this
is not so bad after all’. Two minutes later I was sound asleep.

Sometime in the night we hit some choppy water and the hammocks began to swing
menacingly. I laid there in the blissful state between being fully awake and being asleep
and watched the hammocks swinging, I wondered what would happen if they hit resonance. No
one else stirred and as I drifted off to sleep it occurred to me that the collective term
for hammocks (rede in Portuguese—pronounced hedgee) should be a hades of redes.
I amused myself with my own cleverness until the sun began to rise.

It was quite a sad and poignant parting when we reached Santa Ana. I had traveled
through a lot with these people, including some of the lowest times I have ever
experienced on the road, and it seemed a little melancholic just to slip away without a
proper goodbye. Ana’s grandmother caught me as I was jumping over the rail and gave me a
toothless kiss (more of a suck I guess) and wished me `Godspeed’. Ana just blushed some
more and told me to take care. My policeman friend scribbled his address on a cigarette
packet and told me never to forget our dreams. I felt sad and terribly alone once again.

I took a taxi and crossed the equator, and then just for fun we drove back and crossed
it again. After the third time the taxi driver told me to stop buggering around and
insisted on driving me out of town. Some people just have no sense of occasion.

A short time later I stood in the middle of Brazil’s most northerly road slack jawed.
The road leading north appeared reasonably good but the bus driver was insistent, it might
take a number of days to reach Oiapoque or it might take a few hours, he really couldn’t
be sure. I still had no agenda but felt grubby and tired. Another long bus trip was not
high on my list of preferred pastimes just then. I sat in the shade and wondered what to
do, I had no idea how the next stage of the journey would work out, or even where I was
going, so I took the cowards way out and went back to the airport. I crossed the equator
twice more just for fun, and then an hour later I left the country…

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 philip@dem.ufc.br,
and promises, if he is not away falling of the edge of the map somewhere, to write back.

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