Sunday, September 13, 2009

Crossing of the Waters, Amazon & Pantanal, Brazil

Crossing of the Waters
Natural Brazil: Amazon River, Pantanal, Iguacu Falls

That the world is a bubble we are floating upon is never more apparent than in the Igapo, the flooded Amazon forest. The largest repository of rainwater in the world, the Amazon river post its rainy season in July swells almost five meters. A forest lies submerged
beneath glistening waters, and it is with treetops we converse, our boat a tiny speck on the eye of the world awash in tears.

We embark on our river expedition in Manaus and first head to see a phenomena our travel brochure calls the Crossing of the Waters where the pale waters of the Rio Solimoes, the main river of the Amazon, meet up with the black waters of the Rio Negro, the Amazon’s largest tributary. It is only after the rivers meet, the Amazon as we know it is born. We don’t know what to expect, but we after our visit to the fish market earlier in the day have an idea about the magnitude of the event awaiting us. Stacks of Tambaqui, a large fish popular with both locals and tourists, lie next to each other. They are identical in every, differentiated only by color. The white Tambaqui come from the Rio Solimoes and the black from the Rio Negro, a passerby enlightens us. He adds that the black Tambaqui are tastier. The thought of the same fish growing different in different sources makes me shiver—I think about the force needed to stamp its imprint clearly on living and non-living beings. I can barely imagine what might happen when two such forces meet, each capable of engendering its own unique eco-systems.

The crossing of the rivers is far from conciliatory. At the crossing, a zig-zag line demarcates the battle where the black waters bite into the muddy waters, and then where the Rio Solimoes counter-attacks the black. In a phenomena that is surely among the natural wonders of the world, each river refuses to compromise on its individual nature, traveling side by side, touching but not mingling. After several miles, the rivers finally settle into convergence and move ahead as one river, one Amazon, all the way down to the Amazon's hungry mouth in the Atlantic Ocean.

The flow of the combined rivers at its mouth is twelve billion liters a minute, but the individual rivers are mighty in their own right. From the center of the Rio Negro, I can barely see the banks. Here and there, small waves form over slightly more elevated stretches of submerged lands, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is not an ocean. There is so much water! I am humbled into remembering that my body is comprised mainly of water, and that this quirky ego-ridden thing that is my mind is a lonely island that can so very easily be flooded.

The idea of all this water around me is too much for my mind to encompass, and I prefer to bury my head in my book, Richard Flanagan’s The Death of a River Guide. I reflect wryly on the irony of my book choice, but it is too late to change books as the boat draws further away the port. We are headed toward a small floating lodge situated on one of the many lakes on the Rio Negro that swell after the rains. We have another two hours of boat travel left, and I flip through pages, going deeper into the story about humans who have forgotten what it means to know a river and their own selves, and the river’s terrible revenge. I don’t realize that there is someone behind me until I see a face right next to the book, very close to my face. I put down my book, and stare into the smiling face of our very own river guide, a stocky middle-aged Indian from the Amazon region who goes by the name of Samuel. “Reading, eh? Very good, very good,” he chuckles, and pulls my book up to my eyes so that I can resume reading.

In the days to come, especially after encountering guides who rattled off the scientific and local names of birds and trees with much academic virtuosity, I would think back fondly on Samuel’s halting English, and his unspoken connection with nature. When he
talked about the river or trees, he patted them with the palm of his hand, as if to let the words come out from them as much as himself. He didn’t share too much about his background, other than he came from a tribe up river, and that he had learnt snatches of English, Italian, Japanese, and French in school to become a tour guide.

Throughout our Amazon safari, Samuel showed us special care and attention in numerous small ways: making sure we got a room with a good view, and that we were never too far away when there was anything of interest on the river. I like to think that with our dark skin, hair, and eyes we reminded him of his kin. Perhaps he thought that the same forces that formed him might have formed us, albeit in different parts of the world. Or maybe it was because my people had shared a similar crossing with Europeans, and had come out, like his, on the losing side. Whatever the reason, he treated us with the same care he did the plants, and the river, as if we were just another extension of them, and so himself.

In the quiet air that surrounds Samuel, I can sense sorrow and also outrage at the consequences of the crossing of his people with Europeans. In the collision that happened, six million Indians were reduced to less than 350,000. Slavery, disease, murder, missionary conversion have all but effaced them from the indigenous people of Brazil from the surface of the earth. Where was the convergence of peoples, cultures, that was supposed to happen, Samuel’s tense limbs seem to cry out!

Samuel’s protective gaze and caring for the river and forest cannot stop the fast pace of their destruction. It is predicted that by 2020 less than 200, 000 sq km will remain of an area that once included several million square km of Amazon forest. Farming, ranching, hydroelectricity, logging, mining, and man-made fires all took and continue to take its toll on mutilating rivers, forests, wildlife, mountains. As they are crippled, the delicate balance that sustains life on earth is altered irremediably.

The idea of what it means to be a native of a land keeps gnawing at me, what it means to have your skin, hair, teeth, body, temperament, walk, and talk fashioned by the forces where you live. Millions of years go into harboring the forces of nature, such as rivers, mountains, the sunlight. They, in turn, fashion all native organisms—mountains, rivers, minerals. How long the process takes! The steady yearly inching up of mountains, the swell and ebb of rivers, the achingly long and tedious process by which carbon becomes coal, and sediments form into oil. And then, the thousands of years are responsible for the fashioning of a native organism, you and me. Truly, to know yourself—know your body’s health, its relationship with the rest of the natural world, and the larger issues of life and death—is to know the forces that fashioned you. Tribals who continue to live with the forces that created them, the forests and rivers, carry a unique knowledge about their environment and themselves. We can learn much about ourselves from them.

Samuel shows the tourist attractions of the Amazon river and forest with the rehearsed motions of a circus performer—catch a piranha and pry open its jaws for all to gape at; capture a baby alligator and pass it around for everyone to shudder and squeal; drink from the bark of a water bearing vine in the jungle. This is the tourist Amazon that he has been trained to let us see. It is only in a few unrehearsed moments that the splendor of the Amazon shows itself—being caught in a rain shower in the midst of a thicket of tree tops, spears of rain piercing the water, trees that otherwise stand so still in the waters rustling gently to life with the splatter of rain drops. The sunrise and sunsets, where the sky breaks out into a profusion of color in anticipation, and the rising or sinking orb breaks up the black waters into color that mirror the orgasm in the sky.

In the days to come in the Pantanal, a vast wetlands south of the Amazon basin, we will gaze in wonder at the tall, gawky jabiru stork with its red crest and wing, the majesty of huge indigo-colored mackaws lording over trees, the green flash of parakeets
flipping the air over, the splash of color when herons open their wings. We will grow accustomed to hundreds, no thousands, of alligators, many with their mouths open with the hope that a tiny bird will come by to pick out the parasites that are in clear view. We will witness capybaras, the largest rodents in the world, bopping in the water, kissing and playing with each other. We will see a green snake slither into the marshes, and just when we are least expecting it, see a traffic jam of storks and herons that have disavowed the rule of the road to claim everything—the sky, the ground, the water, as they cascade down in flocks of white.

And then, still later, we will see the unfettered Rio Igacu cascade down an area wider than Victoria and higher than Niagara, over a rock formation with several curves and one semi-circle where the water falls down a deep gullet—the Devil’s Throat. The river in its wide majesty hurtles down a multi-tiered expanse, so that at no point and from no vista can you see the falls in their entirety. We try to take in the waterfalls, one vista at a time, but they evade a sensory reduction, and work more on several planes—sensory, mythic, experiential. The falls are clearly their own entity, and more than a river falling, they are about water creating its own symphony with different notes, spatial arrangements, intensities. I cannot forget the colors as rainbows emerge and dissolve in the various two hundred and seventy-five falls in which the water and waterfalls come into being.

Both the Pantanal, and the Iguacu falls are on protected land, with restricted human interaction. For now, that seems to be the only way to maintain a slice of the world where age-habituated patterns of flora and fauna can be maintained as if no meeting with Europe had occurred. But, in Samuel I see another alternative, where we learn to cohabit with the natural world, instead of only exploiting it. In him, I see a different possibility, one of convergence of worldviews and knowledge, where the modern world embraces all that tribal societies have to offer. I see a world where our civilizations and peoples move along together, both mighty waters of human promise and endeavor, toward a sustainable future.

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