‘Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.’
‘What we see depends mainly on what we are looking for.’ John Lubbock
The river changed colour along the journey from a dirty brown to a dirty black at a confluence. The river was maybe 500 meters wide. Along the banks was thick green jungle, bulging and pushed out by the weight behind it. We couldn’t see any wild life, just a mass of trees, occasionally broken by a jetty, a wooden church and a football field. Sometimes we encountered boys in a small dugout canoe. They tried to time their drift into the middle of the river so that they could pull up beside our ferry and beg.
It had taken a long time to get to Alter do Chao in the Amazon jungle. Two days on a boat from Manaus swaying in a hammock along with a hundred other people. Whereas Manaus had been a disappointing and improbable big city defying the reality of the forest, Alter had immediately felt right – a small town next to the entrance of the Lago Verde. There was a short gondolier ride out to a white sand bank where a row of wooden shacks announced the pleasures of the beach.
We found a small guest house with the unlikely name of the Oriental Pousada. There were no clichéd backpacker places with over-priced dorm beds and an irritating gap year atmosphere. The town had a crumbling colonial charm and despite its great write up in the Lonely Planet was devoid of foreigners. We got our own room with bathroom, air-con and fridge for 60 Reals a night (about $20). Not so cheap but breakfast was included and having air-con and a fridge in the impossible humidity clinched the deal as did the delightful view of a brick wall from our one window.
Alter quickly started ticking all my boxes. It had already endeared itself to me by being hard to get to. 2 days on a boat and a struggle lugging backpacks around Santarém looking for the bus stop to Alter. The lack of 20 somethings getting pissed or studying organic farming. The lack of Wi-Fi and travel agents. The lack of a map. And then the presence of a gorgeous beach. Our own room. And then the biggest tick of all, scoring a big bag of weed.
It hadn’t taken long. We arrived on Sunday afternoon, found the pousada and then walked 20 meters to the gondolier port. 3 Reals took us to the sand bank. It was a Sunday, and as with nearly everywhere in South America, everyone was outside eating, drinking and listening to music. Most of the action was on the side facing away from the town. We went to the opposite side and were soon approached by a young man and his family. He was light brown with crazy frizzy hair and a big smile. His two little kids had bleached blonde mops. They were ostensibly selling handmade jewelry, only not very hard. He soon invited us for a smoke. Another hippy friend turned up. He was a beautiful youth with dreadlocks and Inca blood. He sparked up a pure ganja blunt and spoke really good English. Now this is what I came to South America for – not to watch a room full of twats surf Facebook.
The blunt was poorly made but the gear was potent. A small coterie of hippies was gathering as just meters away the locals ate huge plates of rice, beans and fish.
Johnny, the lanky brown dude with the little kids and artisan/mother earth wife was not shy in offering to get us some weed. It was a welcome offer but complicated by the fact that my wife and I only had a couple of dollars on us and that he didn’t have any weed on him to sell. As is often the case, these things still find their way to the light. His young white cousin made an appearance on the beach and Johnny explained that the cousin would row us back to town where we could pick up the cash, hand it over to the cousin and then wait for the gear back on the beach.
It’s always risky to give the money up front, but sometimes there seems little choice. It was obvious that Johnny hadn’t worked at anything other than twinning beads and shell onto solder wire for years. His cousin looked as if he might have had a job but not pocket change of $16. So we placed our faith in the God of hippies and Johnny’s white cousin.
We made the trip back to town, got the 50 Reals to Johnny’s cousin and caught a boat back to the beach. To kill the time I went for a swim with one of the blonde afro kids and my wife intrigued the other kid with perfectly formed sand balls.
A South American hour later a smiling cousin reappeared with a bottle of muscle wine and beckoned for me to follow him:
“In Brazil no legal.”
I followed the cousin away from the crowds. We walked past the last beach shack, around gnarly trees with long branches until we were alone. We sit down and he hands me a newspaper package. I unwrap it to find about half an ounce.
We attempt some mangled small talk in Brazilian Spanish while he makes a big joint and then we traipse back down the beach towards the sounds of samba music. I’m in love with Alter and with Brazil.
Back at the base we smoke it up and drink nasty muscle wine. This is a proper Sunday.
After another hour we make our excuses and get the boat back to town.
That first day set the tone for the next couple of days: smoking and beach. We would walk along the beach and find a good tree to hang our hammocks. Perfect days and at night we’d buy bread and cheese at the shop and top up on cincuenta uno and fizzy guarana pop.
In our bathroom we encountered little frogs with tremendous jumps. They’d ping around the concrete walls as I’d try and make them hop back out the window.
The more we smoked the more the concrete wall view caught my imagination. The flaking plaster patterns began to resemble modern art. I stood by the window blowing smoke outside and saw the jungle in the flaky abstractions, I saw jaguar and manatee. I saw the brown face of an Amazonian.
All was well until the bag of weed started running low. Why do good things never last? Bad things like jobs and speech festivals seem to go on for millennia; good things vanish in the twinkling of the eye and the wetting of the glue on the rizla.
We’d met a Brazilian lad called Chakau who had a Japanese girlfriend called Maki. They seemed friendly. Chakau was more black than white and had shoulder length dreads and an endearing smile. Maki was the typical young Japanese beanpole with a big head and a couple of unsightly moles on her face. She spoke Portuguese and her plan in life seemed to be nothing more than to stay away from Japan for as long as possible. Shacking up with a local solved the problem of Brazil’s expensive accommodation. At least she didn’t want to save the world for 10 days so as to improve her resume. That was something in her favour.
We had given her some Japanese medicine. She had offered to my wife that her rasta boyfriend could score us some dope. It all seemed reasonable.
We ran into Chakau the following day on the beach. It was a weekday and overcast. Just Johnny, Chakau and a chubby looking Indigenous fellow were lounging around an empty restaurant shack. I wasn’t sure if the Indian was cool, so I attempted to be surreptitious with my request. Behind the Indian’s back I made a smoking gesture to Chakau and handed him over 50 Reals. I clearly indicated that I didn’t want to buy his shell jewelry. I explained that we would be waiting just a few meters up the beach. He insisted that we choose a couple of his jewelry items anyway. I didn’t want to appear ungrateful so choose two cheap bracelets made from string and some odd looking beads.
We waited and waited and he didn’t show. As we waited I suspected that Chakau did in fact think we had gifted him 50 Reals.
My wife was angrier than me about the obvious con. I was inclined to put it down to experience. It didn’t help our finances – Brazil was punishingly expensive compared to any other of the South American countries we had so far encountered, but what could be done? Whereas I was getting stoical my better half was fuming. I think she took it bad because we had gone out of our way to be nice to the Japanese girlfriend of Chakau. She ordered me to go out and look for the guy.
In the evening I went looking for him in the town square where we had met him and his Japanese bird. He wasn’t there but Johnny was. Johnny understood immediately what had happened. He related to me how after we had left them Chakau had thought I had made him a present of 50 Reals. Johnny claimed that he had told Chakau that he was mistaken, that the foreigner wanted weed. Johnny also pointed out what was then blinding obvious to me – I should have asked Johnny again to get weed.
Never fix your dealer unless it is broken.
I kicked around the small town square with Johnny and a biker looking dude with an easy rider moustache who was also camping out on the sand bar for free. The biker bloke tried to teach me how to keep a stick in the air with two other sticks. It passed the time until mother earth wife returned with eggs and poor white bread from the little shop where we also bought our dinner. I kind of felt a bit stupid getting all het up about losing 50 Reals when just a few eggs and low grade bread looked like the dinner for a family of 4 plus the biker. They never asked me for any money. I usually handed out fags at these moments to placate my conscience.
Johnny promised to tell Chakau about the mix up when he next saw him. With that they rowed back in their battered boat to their hammocks on the deserted beach.
I went to the shop to buy another packet of fags. As I stepped out of the shop a man stepped out of the shadows. The town square was now deserted except for the two of us. He was tall and had the high cheek bones of an indigenous Amazonian. He was wearing a dirty white T-shirt, grey trousers and flip flops. His hair was cut short. He approached me. I immediately felt worried. This bloke looked tough and serious and he wanted to talk to me.
I cannot transcribe our dialogue. It was my usual Spanish gibberish that consisted mostly of me thinking of the longest Latinate words in my vocabulary and sticking an ‘o’ on the end. The Amazonian spoke to me in slow Spanish in an effort to help communication. The entire time he never smiled. His eyes were as black as the river.
From what I could gather he seemed to know that Chakau had cheated me. I relaxed a bit when I began to understand that he didn’t want to mug me. Indeed according to my keyword scanning of his speeches he seemed to be as incensed by the young lad’s behaviour as well.
He then pulled out a bag of weed. I couldn’t see clearly but it looked like an eighth or so. My mind started racing – how much should that cost? If I got out my wallet would he just rob me?
He didn’t want money. Fuck this is weird. I tried to pay him something anyway. He looked sternly at me and shook his head. He put the plastic bag of weed in my hand and vanished back into the shadows while I was trying to say thank you.
“You’ll never guess what happened to me,” I said as I entered our room, “some Amazonian dude just appeared out of nowhere and gave me a bag of weed. I think he was a chief or something. He knew about Chakau cheating us. Check it out.”
And with that I showed my wife the bag. Not bad for nothing. Should last us for a couple of days perhaps. We got stuck into the smoke and the cane spirits. Before passing out we got a bit frisky and ended up breaking the bed. Two of the wooden slats under the mattress had cracked. We spread out the few remaining unbroken slats to take our weight and gingerly got back into bed and went to sleep. I dreamt about the wall outside our window. In the dream I went to look at the wall and found a door. I opened the door and walked into the rain forest. Monkeys screeched high in the trees. Giant roots ran across the floor. The place smelt of fungus. I felt sticky in the dim light of the forest. I turned around to find the door but it was gone.
The next morning over our big, free breakfast this chubby little Indian with a baseball cap and some sixteen year old side kick came up to our table. What the fuck now? Was I being summoned to see the chief? Was he inflicting Chakau to some horrors of the jungle? That dream was still in my head.
The gangly kid turned out to be the translator. It was a bizarre affair. He asked us if we wanted to go on a boat tour. No. He then points to his Indian buddy and said: “He gave you marijuana last night.”
I did a double take. Surely it couldn’t be the same guy? Not the towering Chief, the righter of wrongs, the voice of nobler and older people?
Yep, it was. It all fell into place. He was the guy on the beach who was there when we handed over the money to Chakau to get us some weed. At last I had some handle on the situation. I was seeing things a bit more clearly now. The big bellied Indian obviously pegged us for a couple of right mugs and was simply playing the long game with the free ganja of the night before. Me and my stupid idealizations. Noble chiefs my arse.
And now he wanted us to sign up for some expensive boat trip.
The former chief went into a huddle with the kid when they realized there would be no lucrative tourist outing with the gringos. The kid asked for the weed back.
There was a problem – we had smoked about a quarter of it. I told my wife to go to our room and get all the gear. How was this going to pan out? I hoped his remaining gear plus what little we had from our first batch would satisfy the duo.
My wife returned and slipped a package into the kid’s hands. He handed it to Chief Chubby who held it up in plain view to check the contents.
“Ta Bom.” And with that the comedy duo took off.
Alter do Chao was just getting weirder and weirder and we had lost the last of the medicine. Or so I thought until we got back to the room and my wife told me she hadn’t given up the remnants of our first stash.
My good mood lasted until my wife told me the plan for the day. We would go to the beach to look for Chakau and if he wasn’t there we would get Johnny to explain to us where he lived. Uh.
There was no sign of Chakau on the beach. Johnny as always made an appearance with Dennis Hopper. Johnny explained where Chakau lived. It didn’t sound close. I looked at my wife’s stern face. The trek it was then.
We crossed back over the river, stopped off at the room for a quick smoke and then started off into a deserted residential area of the town under a punishingly fierce sun.
I figured that Johnny must have been playing for both sides as Maki appeared on a mountain bike after only 20 minutes walking. There must have been some mobile phone action going on as she had come armed with a bag of weed and an understanding of the situation. She immediately started off on Japanese. From what I could understand she was bullshitting excuses on behalf of her boyfriend. The bag of weed was poxy compared to the usual Brazilian deal. She insisted that was the deal. I started swearing at her. It is always so much safer to be rude to women who only half speak English. I gave her back the two bracelets and stated baldly that I wanted more weed or some type of refund. She stuck to her line about that being the deal. It was obvious to me that Chakau had bought a full bag and what we were being given was what he hadn’t managed to smoke yet.
The sun was getting to me. I grabbed back the two bracelets and told her to fuck off. With that we stomped back to the pousada.
The case of the missing ganja was unsatisfactorily resolved. Honour had been served and I hadn’t had to try and fight someone nearly half my age.
Over lunch we ran into an American gabbering away to a local in Spanish. When the local wandered off to kick the dirt somewhere else the American moved over to our table. My wife was still busy crunching through the cheesy manioc condiment on the table.
The American was in his twenties with olive skin and an impressive beard. He had the open unguarded way about him that seemed typical of his countrymen. We passed the usual traveller conversation about plans and places. Then he started talking about how frustrating it was for him having to learn Portuguese. I tried to sympathize with him but I thought to myself that I had been all over the world without understanding the local language. The only place where I had tried to speak the local language was China and the experience had just left me more in the dark about the Middle Kingdom. The dude then changed tack:
“Hey man Depeche Mode are playing in Rio on the 5th and Buenos Aires on the 7th. I’m trying to get a flight. If I don’t catch them in Rio, I’ll definitely fly to BA to get a ticket.”
“Isn’t the lead singer dead yet? No? He’s an example to us all.”
“I love you Brits and your sense of humor.”
He soon wandered off to practice his Portuguese. We made a vague agreement to catch the boat together. How was going he going to make up the time after 2 days on a boat to Belem? Why would anyone skip all of Brazil to catch a concert of 80s electro-pop?