There in the town of Patos in Pernambuco in front of everyone I don’t want to remember, we said our good-byes at the Gate in the first light of dawn on Christmas day 1897 - my mother and I. I never saw her again. I left with two changes of clothing in a suitcase tied up and sewn together and a stereoscope to look at views of Manaus, Belém, Paris, London, Vienna and St. Petersburg.
I rode along on a mule in a wool convoy through the Borborema and three days later I was in Timbauba de Mocós, head of the rail line, gathering place for cowboys from Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte. There I boarded a train to Recife where I found lodgings in the Brum near the Lingueta wharf and stayed for five days before boarding the Alfredo bound for the Amazon. I was in my teens.
We traveled a whole day and awoke on the following at Cabedelo. The dock was filled with anxious people out to meet the fighting men from Canudos, Monte Santo e Favela, Travessia and Uauá. Spirits were high but there was also a lot of shrieking and tears. We did not linger there but went on to Natal where migrants fleeing from the Northeast were waiting for a boat to the Amazon country. Besides 500 soldiers of the Pará police, the entire 4th battalion of infantry returning from the War, without casualties, was already settled in the hold of the ship; so, in Fortaleza, Commandant Bezerra had to have a list read aloud of more than 600 souls done in by the dry spells of the Northeast, part of a steady migration since '79 to the Amazon because it had stopped raining. The ship in which not even a single crate of pigs would fit, accommodated that horde stinking of dust, sweat, manure and urine - hammocks crisscrossing - there was stealing, drinking, rapes, fighting, knifings and death. A father caught a guy by surprise with his daughter in a livestock stall and skinned him; another, drunk, pissed right on the floor where it trickled towards a crowd of people sleeping on the floor; on a chicken cage a man had taken off his gear and was resting under the light of a yellow oil-lamp full of flies. He was a soldier.
I was still in the hold when we passed the lighthouse at Acaraú and stopped in Amarração to get rid of a corpse, a prisoner and two passengers covered with smallpox. But we sailed right past Tutóia and arrived at the port of São Luís where the Alfredo was surrounded by small boats and dinghies transforming the water into a gigantic, floating market. They all climbed aboard: sellers of fried shrimp, sweets and fruit. What a wonderful journey it was! Then untied and dispached, the Alfredo continued her heavy navigation along the coast towards Belém and, as it was growing dark, we slowed down to let the sand pilot on. When the Alfredo crossed the estuary of the Amazon River, like a bush red-pepper, it penetrated the great river with binnacles lit as it was night and in spite of all covered with stars.
In Belém I stayed at the Two Nations’ Hotel (one of its owners was Portuguese, the other Spanish). As I had to wait a month for the Barão de Juruá bound for the Amazon, my money started to run out. I slept outdoors to save money for meals and I already owed the skipper for advancing me passage-fare.
Once embarked I would arrive in Manaus without hindrance after six days at eight miles an hour. Two days later we passed Boca do Purus and 5 days later the mouth of the Juruá. We traveled all day and all night. At the mouth of the Juruá the Solimões River is 12 km wide and birds unable to fly far (the trumpeter, curassow, cujubim) could not manage to cross it but died, tired and drowning, at the bottom of waves brushed with yellow from the headwind. In eight days’ travel on the Juruá we arrived at the Tarauacá River and docked at São Felipe, a nice, clean town of forty-five houses. Nine days later we entered the Jordão River from which point the Barão, because of its draft, could not continue. So we went on by canoe on the Bom Jardim Bayou. We paddled upriver and came to our end and destination, the point of our knot, the terminus, the final boundary, the farthest and innermost place on this terrestial orb – we finally got to Hell’s Bayou, the limit of the ends of the earth where we encountered the legendary, mythical and infinite Manixi rubber plantation wrapped in the weight of its fame and wonder – forty days after leaving Belém, three months and five days since leaving Patos.
But I didn’t mention that I had come to look for my brother Antonio and uncle Genaro who had been sent off to Manixi. No. They had been rubber tappers on the Jantiatuba for the Pixuna rubber plantation, 1,270 miles from the city of Manaus (where years later the Alfredo would shipwreck). They were staying along the Eiru river on a bend, almost a lake, really. From there they left on a barge, boat and canoe to the Gregorio river where they worked for Frenchmen. From there to the Mu, on to Paraná da Arrependida - free tappers that they were - they went up to where they say the son of Euclides da Cunha, who was a deputy, died in a tappers uprising. They traveled on to the Riozinho do Leonel, along the Tejo, Breu, the beautiful Corumbam Bayou – magnificent! – the Hudson, Paraná Pixuna, Moa, Juruá-mirim, up to the Paraná do Ouro Preto, entered the Amônea via the Paraná dos Numas, near the Paraná São João, then along a natural canal without name leading to an unknown place and there they met the boat that went to Hell’s Bayou. It left them in Manixi, in Acre, where they settled down, free tappers of the rubber plantation owner.
I confess (this whole book is a confession of my life) that I felt at that moment that Genaro and Antonio were longing to return to the brush country. The Amazon crisis was getting worse and conditions already were getting bad for tappers – so my brother and uncle fretting and wasting away in order to draw milk from the jungle for no gain.
Now when they saw me they couldn’t grasp what I was doing there. I emerged thin, overwhelmed under my curls of brown hair, forlorn, like an apparition, from a bench under the canopy of a shed (I remember a dark, stormy downpour, night lightning and the whistling of the wind). No, they didn’t recognize me (I was a witness to their fate), they were not overjoyed to see me, rather, they resented me. Hadn’t they left, quite young, more than ten years ago with the memory of a kid in bleach worn diapers? Didn’t they see me as the incarnate killer of their hopes, the bold headline of one more crisis coming to this part of the country upon more bad news, renewing a complaint which already had gone on so many years, scattering the family in all directions (people that I neither knew nor knew if they were still alive) – one went to São Paulo and became a soldier, another with muscular legs left suddenly for Belém returning later via Piauí passing through Serra Grande to Teresina, then via Maranhão to Goiás, a footloose ruffian he was, then climbing the Tocantins to Bahía where he finally disappeared and there was no news of him except that he ended up in the leprosary of Paricatuba (“I have faith in a man who eats and walks armed,” he told us the day he left. “It gives you muscle and guts. With a full stomach, a gun and knife at my side I can take on any kind of wild animal!”). The other, the oldest – ah! – was dying of hunger, exhausted, worn out, because he wouldn’t leave his old mother (she loved him most of all. She died two years after I left. She despised me; I know she hated me, cursed me on her deathbed). And our sister, pretty, captivating, the youngest - her husband left to work as a drover in Vila de Santa Rita to earn something to escape the hunger of the world while the brush country was peeling with drought; yes, our whole family, messed up and broken, as I later saw, left me all by myself to the horror of God.
So, they hadn’t said a word. They were withdrawn and I just sat there in the dark for a long while brushing off the rain from my tied-up suitcase, crying in desertion and solitude. I wanted to go back and not be there. I wished I hadn’t come. But I had no way back. And I never returned.
Slowly from the next day on, I began to do those necessary things like cooking, cleaning the hut, fishing, gathering fruit so I wouldn’t go hungry. And since I now owed the boss (whom I didn’t know), I had to start running, a prisoner of odd jobs, going along the trappers’ path with a small tin cup, doing the smoke curing with uricury, chips of cow tree and acabu, making my own rubber balls. The milk turned black at my touch. Farming and rubber tapping don’t mix? Produce what you eat? They told me nothing, taught me nothing, like they didn’t know I was there. And they didn’t talk to each other. They had become dumb animals – I don’t think they knew how to talk. They returned at dark, like worn-out monkeys, mute and dirty, they ate and they slept, stinking. At dawn, they were back on the trail; they moved mechanical as if by some internal wire contraption. I don’t know where or for what.
But I learned to cut the trees, cure the latex, pile up rubber balls with the pervasive sound of oily bubbling from the nudging dark waters of Hell’s Bayou (which I can still hear to this day and will keep hearing until the hour of my death in this end of nowhere).