My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was very eager to read this book as I had spent three months up the Amazon living in a settlement of Caboclo Indians. These are mixed race from the rubber boom of the 19th century. They hadn’t gone to the cities to live but remained in the jungle intermarrying with those they called ‘the painted men’. They had no contact with tourists of any kind and I was the first non-Indian to have visited them.
How I got there was I was sailing around the world with three friends and when we got to Brazil, they all went to Rio de Janeiro and I thought it was my one and only chance to go up the Amazon. Over the next month I went first to Belem, then Santarem ending up in Manaus. I spent a few weeks working out how to avoid the tourist routes and arranged tours. I was in a travel agency when the guide, an Indian, said he was going back home for three months and did I want to come? We negotiated a price and then after a fantastic two day journey sailing on river boats, canoes, a bus (it got stuck at a pot hole big enough to sink it in which Victoria Regina lillies 6′ across were growing) and finally walking we got to Lake Amañas in Amazonas.
40 or so people lived around this lake which was so big it took a river motor boat 2.5 hours to sail around. A few people lived in houses on stilts, one with the most beautiful parquet floor a la William Morris I have ever seen, but most on floating houses. I lived in the latter. The dish-washing and toileting arrangements involved holes in the sweet-smelling wood floor with pirañas waiting to clean the plates or receive… offerings.
My days were filled with fishing with seine nets and leaky pirogues, hunting with spears and dogs, music on tiny little guitars and panpipes and visiting the people who lived around the lake. I was most impressed by the medicine man who was as graceful and beautiful as a ballet dancer and who applied sound hygenic and herbal principles to his work, he wasn’t a shaman. I learned how to catch crocodiles in my bare hands although I only did it once (it was enough!)
So when the author writes about his trips into the jungle, I’m not exactly ignorant and he is writing to impress with things he says are unique but in fact are quite everyday.
The Amazon rises and falls 40′ a year from the melt-water of the snow in the Andes. This means that the forest can be flooded for part of the year, then it is known as igapo, and trees quite tall can look like little bushes when you manoeuvre your leaky canoe around them. I arrived when the waters had gone down considerably and on dry land there was a small tree with a dead and stinky anaconda draped from not far above the ground, over the top and down to the ground again. It was bigger than anything in the Guinness book of world records and eclipsed the author’s biggest ever 25′ one. The author said he fantasised that if he had taken a picture it would have been on the front cover of Time. Judging by the size of the tree the dead one I saw was between 35-45 ft. long. The Indians I was with said that it was a big snake, unusual but not unique and that they left it there as a warning to other snakes not to come near.
Another thing was when the author described the ‘rarely-seen landscape of floating islands’ by moonlight. These floating islands were common on the lake where the river flowed very slowly through. They vary greatly in size from a small rug upwards. They are made up of matted grass roots, the beautiful water hyacinth and small bushes. I was told you can’t walk on them, although the big ones will support your weight because they are full of biting ants. Also, in the daytime, crocodiles hide under them for the shade.
Once, when I was visiting the medicine man I tied up my canoe to the bank but when I came back an hour or two later I found myself land-locked by a huge island, the size of a football pitch. All you can do is push it with the paddles, it’s a heavy job, until it starts to part and move off slowly. They are never stationary for long.
The last example I want to write about is his encounter with ‘rare, fast-moving’ morpho butterflies. So rare apparently that his Indian friend takes a leaf to wrap up a dead one the author found in a parcel. I was out hunting one day with the medicine man’s son. We had two dogs with us and spears and found ourselves in a beautiful little glade with a small pool in the middle and sunlight shafting down from high up above the canopy. There were morphos everywhere! Although the author says they were very fast fliers, these ones were taking it easy. Their huge, hand-size wings, glimmering and shining all the blues a sky can be, as they glided around the glade sometimes settling on us. One brushed my cheek with a wing and left a drift of angel dust. It was like an enchantment.
The author left the Amazon and went to India. He became just the sort of bleeding heart white liberal that infest the Caribbean sitting on committees to preserve the natural environment or even taking it back and not giving a damn about how the locals are supposed to make a living. They’ve made their pile, they’ve got a house and family ‘back home’ now they want to see a paradise preserved for their winter homes.
Conservation is important. Good conservation is taking necessary progress into account and negotiating a way through that. When that isn’t done, people will remain not just poor when they can see they needn’t be, but bitter and seek to take what they can. Poaching, burning, corrupt politicians (and huge foreign conglomerates) are their weapons.
So what finally got me to put the book down was this sentence that shows the attitude of the author that he finds elevated and admirable and I find beyond irrelevant:
“What is it about our species that allows us to watch sitcoms and argue over sports while cultures and creatures and those things meek and green and good are chopped, shot and burned from the world for a buck? “
All creatures are not meek and good, but his point is, as is with a lot of propaganda, if you can’t work it through the facts, then go for the emotions, guilt-trip ’em. It is implied that we should get off our lazy arses and fill our days and evenings with meaningful work towards conserving the wildlife of this planet just like he does, no time for levity, frippery or going to the pub.
This is a bit like blaming people for the problems of pollution and Garbage on the planet when really it is industry, from cafes on up, that are responsible for over 95% of it. As long as it’s the individual doing their best to be green, we will get swallowed by a massive wave of communal self-congratulation and governments, industry, banks and businessmen will continue on in their own sweet way, destroying the planet for money. This should not be an emotional issue as it is sold, it certainly isn’t to industry or the banks. So that sentence of his and its import made me dnf this book.
Now it could be that if I didn’t know the Amazon so well, didn’t live on a beautiful island where conservation and progress are in opposition but forever butting up in the middle, that I would have enjoyed this book. Instead I found it to be ego-driven with the author’s great delight in being such an interesting person. He wasn’t. His adventures weren’t spectacular to me and the unique events were commonplace.
Two stars. One extra because it was quite well-written.