Upon extension of the Royal Princess’s hydraulically-actuated tender boarding ramp on Deck 3, several tiny, wooden canoes barely large enough to support the village’s families and children and so immersed in the muddy Amazon that the water level had been parallel with their sides and had to be continually scooped back out, rowed out to the behemoth liner to look, gawk, and touch “civilization,” a lifestyle unknown to them and therefore something akin to an extraterrestrial visitor to the earth. Although the ship’s passengers had eagerly anticipated a taste of the local way of life, this first encounter had indicated that they considered the experience every bit the reciprocal and, if it had not been for their benign curiosity, they themselves could have been construed as “invaders.”
Located at the confluence of the Amazon and Rio da Valeria rivers, Boca da Valeria, translating as “mouth of the Valeria River,” is representative of the thousands of tiny, isolated communities within the Amazon basin where basic, almost-primitive “os riberinhos,” or “river dwellers,” live from the river and the rain forest in a dozen or so wooden houses supported by stilts, their 75 inhabitants frequenting a single school and church and sharing a communal manioc farm and produce field. It can, by any measure, be considered the “real Brazil.”
Covering the short distance from the Royal Princess to shore amid water-arching, pink dolphins, my tender penetrated thick, swampy, molasses with its dual-pontoon underside, circumventing two river boats before approaching the wooden, stilt-supported houses and thatch huts marking the Boca da Valeria “pocket of humanity,” which could equally have been considered a “pocket of (arrested) time.” To the river dwellers, this had been “home.” It had been all that they had known. We had brought our preconceived “ideas” of home, which had been all we had known. Neither had been the same, or even remotely close. Perhaps I would find some elements of commonality between the two during my visit.
As I disembarked on to the tiny, wooden, floating dock, itself little more than a floating boat, I heard the words, “Welcome to the jungle!”—the last and only ones in English, filing on to the dirt path which had led to the throngs of villagers and native children, and quickly realized that we had shared the same desire to learn about and experience the divergent lifestyles of the other. I had, in the process, served as the “bridge” between my world and theirs.
The dirt path led past the line of thatched-roof stalls, which could be considered the village’s market and which displayed their local, hand-made crafts, an economic activity primarily targeted at the tourists in the communal village. The entrepreneurial process of buying, selling, and profiting had been entirely new to them.
The stucco “Escola Municipal Sao Francisco,” or “Municipal School of St. Francis,” with a yellow and blue exterior and wooden shuttered windows devoid of any glass, featured a spartan interior of chairs and desks, a globe, and a blackboard, above which had been hung a banner with mathematical examples subdivided into the four functions, such as “adicao,” or “addition,” and “multiplicaco,” or “multiplication,” among others. The single-room school had clearly served as the community’s core, or heart, and channel to knowledge, and pride of learning and high grades had been equally shared here and demonstrated by the homework and the drawings hung on the rear wall, human emotions spanning the distance from my hometown in the United States to this tiny village in the Amazon.
Followed and surrounded by throngs of children as I inspected the classroom and feverishly took notes, I sensed their interest and curiosity, but not in my interest or activity, but instead in the perceived gifts I had brought for them and carried in the bag dangling from my hand. That we all, as tourists, potentially carried items unknown to them from the modern world in this primitive puncture of jungle intensified their curiosity, but that they had been simply curious and wished to find out if I had brought anything for them had been no different than when I, as a small child, had peeked into a bag a visiting relative had carried and hopefully asked, “Do you have anything in there for me?
The village’s only “street” stood before me, a rocky, dirt path lined with a handful of stilt-supported wooden structures considered “houses,” each with a miniature boat like the one which had met my ship, for fishing and short-distance transportation, immersed in the brown water behind them. They had clearly been the village’s idea of “a car in every garage,” although these “cars” had been the necessities of their lifestyle.
One of the local women invited me into her house. Door locks and police stations had been replaced by trust here, or perhaps the order had been inverse in my society. Greed and materialism may well have vastly increased life’s comforts, but these “primitive” people had retained their virtues and hence connections with God, whose fulfillment seemed to obviate the need for these luxuries unless and until they had been faced with temptation. Sadly, we, as tourists, represented that.
The house, accessed by three crude, wooden boards serving as steps and subdivided into three rooms, had reeked of scarcity: a kitchen with little more than a table, a living room with a single seat, and a bedroom only identifiable as such by its wall-hung hammocks, but a piece of modern civilization, seeming grossly out-of-place, assaulted my eyes and ears and marred what had become my mental image of life here: a large, although very antiquated, black-and-white television. Because of the world I had come from, it could have served as a welcomed sight; instead, it had only served to spoil it. I had traveled here to learn and experience what had been new,” not to view what I had already known, and I had quickly flicked my eyes away.
The house across the “street” sported a hammock suspended between two stilts below what obviously had been its main floor and to one of them had been leashed a pig, which could have been the family pet or dinner, while steam rose from a dilapidated stove propped on the outside porch behind it.
A perpendicular, inclining path led to the village’s communal produce field and manioc farm, the two principle sources of sustenance other than the river itself. The path then disappeared into the rain forest.
The Amazon rain forest itself, the world’s largest tropical rain forest bordered by the Guiana Highlands in the north, the Brazilian central plateau in the south, the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and the Andes Mountains in the west had been the village’s “backyard,” and occupies the drainage basin of the Amazon River and its tributaries, covering four million square miles in nine countries: Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. It blankets 40 percent of Brazil alone. Its existence is the result of high, stable temperatures, humidity, and rainfall.
The rain forest, which covers more than two-thirds of the Amazon basin, is an extension of the dry forest and savanna in the north and south and the montane forest in the west, in the Andes. Its dense vegetation, forming multiple-level closed canopies which impede all but ten percent of the sun’s rays from reaching the ground and extend upwards of 150 feet, support more plant life between these levels than on the ground itself. Its extensive flora, averaging more than 250 tree species per typical acre, includes rosewood, mahogany, the rubber tree, and the Brazil nut.
Several million species of insects, birds, and other life forms, some still unrecorded by science, include alligators, anacondas, boa constrictors, manatees, freshwater dolphins, piranhas, electric eels, catfish, and the world’s largest freshwater turtle, the 150-pound yellow-headed sideneck whose only other habitat is Madagascar. Inland mammals include the jaguar, the tapir, the sloth, the red deer, and the monkey.
Of the 16 million people who inhabit the basin, more than half live in rural settlements, such as Boca da Valeria, lining the river which provides their lifeline of food, water, soil for planting, and means of transportation.
Reaching the end of the village’s main artery, which had been overgrown with some grass and sported a sizable stilt structure, I realized that my temporary time and culture warp had been suddenly shattered, as if a smooth-driving car had suddenly collided with a brick wall, when the clearing had revealed that coffee color-appearing water known as the “Amazon” supporting the high-rise, balcony-lined metropolis designated Royal Princess. The shatter had pertained more to my emotions than anything else, my feelings of primitive solitude, innocence, simplicity, and lack of materiality to which to attach my soul cracking with the ease of glass. That floating metropolis would, in a scant few hours, take me away, away from both geographical location and emotional simplicity, the latter of which somehow fostered spirituality, and return me to physical comfort and plenitude, where all my wishes, needs, and desires would be immediately met. I looked down and felt overwhelming shame and disappointment in myself.
A villager, attending his boat, invited me into his house where I had later met his wife. Large, steep, wooden stairs led to an equally large outdoor balcony. Its “inside” had been subdivided into only two rooms: the kitchen and the bedroom.
Communicating with his wife in Spanish, who responded in Portuguese, I had learned that the kitchen, decidedly well-provisioned over those visited in the other village houses with a center, tablecloth-covered picnic table; a large array of hanging aluminum pots and pans; and an antiquated, but nevertheless still-functioning, match-lit stove, had been the location of little cooking, with most of it accomplished outdoors because of the internal heat in the wooden structure, despite the fact that all windows had been paneless.
The considerably-sized bedroom, receiving cool, cross-ventilation breezes during the night from the river because of its diametrically-opposed window and door (neither of which had a glass pane or an actual, hinged panel covering it), featured an almost-like-home double bed and a hammock. But the feature which had seemed most salient and somehow out-of-place in this primitive village where reading did not seem to belong to the list of necessary survival activities such as fishing, planting, and eating, had been the shelf of books.
“Wow, look at all these books!” I had exclaimed to the villager in Spanish. “Why do you have them?” I had wanted to know.
“I am the village school teacher,” he had returned in Portuguese, pointing to the school house down the path, and it somehow seemed fitting that a person of this importance, who had played served as a key role model, would have one of the largest houses. This man was the village’s leader and link to knowledge.
We spent considerable time reviewing the lesson books, each applicable for a different grade and printed in Portuguese, and divided into subject matters such as reading, math, and language. There had even been a chapter for Spanish vocabulary.
During the later, return walk over rock and red-tinged dirt to the tender pier, I had somewhat startlingly discovered that the cruise ship, which should have been clearly visible from this vantage point, had disappeared—not because I had subconsciously or psychologically obliterated it in my mind in my quest to complete my picture of primitive reality, but because an Amazon-characteristic flash flood had rendered visibility, and all in it, to nonexistence, and the ground had been metamorphosed into a series of varying-sized lakes.
Pulling away from the village in the tender, I consistently thought of the high ratio of children to adults, children who, whether they belonged to this village or any other in the world, had been the future’s hope, but who, throughout the experience, had instantly held out hands seeking gifts and money from me and all the other passengers alike, as if the cruise ship had represented a periodic, multi-annual Santa Claus visit.
As people, the river dwellers had shared the same fundamental qualities and characteristics as the rest of us: identity, personality, talent, hoped-for contribution to the world, hopes, dreams, and the ultimate achievement of leaving tracks in the mud when they had reached the end of their life paths. Their village had provided crude, primitive, wooden structures called homes where their families had bonded; marketless, communal food for sustenance from the river and the soil; a school house in which to learn, share ideas, grow, and advance; a church to reconnect with and worship their higher powers; and the role models of parent, teacher, and priest to lead, inspire, and emulate, fully proving that, despite geographical location differentiation and lifestyle disparity, that we had all originated from the same source.
Yet, I continued to focus on those outstretched hands and could not refrain from wondering if we, as visiting tourists who freely gave and taught them to freely expect, had somehow begun to corrupt and spoil their primitive, pristine, innocent, non-materialistic pocket of time. But I somehow knew that we had…
I myself had given the village schoolteacher a tip larger than a weekly, if not monthly, salary in Boca da Valeria—if, indeed, there had been any salaries there—but justified it as an investment in education.
Somewhere down the line, when the conversion process to modernity and materialism had been irreversible, I would have to search for a new Boca da Valeria. By traveling there, I would once again learn from it and be enriched by it. By traveling there, I would also once again be partially responsible for its inevitable change.
As the Royal Princess slowly retracted its hydraulically-actuated tender boarding ramp on Deck 3, views of the village and “os riberinhos” progressively decreased in size until the heavy iron panel closed with a decided bang!
I hope you never lose what you taught me today, I thought…