by Geza Fuchs
A journey down the Amazon river and its consequences.
|The boat sliced through the muddy waters at 5 miles per hour. The propeller struggled to push us up the river, fighting the current and our fears. Antonio, the hired skipper, sat in the cockpit smoking and swatting mosquitoes from his face. Mom and dad lay in their bed trying to hide from the beating sun. Sheryl was in the galley preparing lunch for our five-strong party, and I kept busy scanning the surroundings for snakes, crocodiles, piranhas and any other deadly creatures that could harm us.
My father, the dentist, the pastor. It had been his idea. One weekend he drove us down to the Memphis boat show. We walked the premises full of enthusiasm; he didn't find the vessel he was looking for, but he did find the determination he needed. The next weekend we drove along the Mississippi talking to shrimpers and tugboat sailors. He took note of everything they said. A few phone calls to Brazil the following days arranged it all: we would sail down the Amazon River, 1800 miles, 30 days, stopping at every village along the way to baptize the barbarians and fix their teeth. Dental treatment and eternal salvation, dad's offering to the world.
The whirring of the engine gave us away as we approached the first of the 20 villages mapped out. The natives waited for us huddled by the edge of the river, some in silence, some yelling and ranting and jumping up and down. Antonio negotiated the docking with 3 or 4 shouts and disappeared to sleep for a few hours, until we motored off again.
The wooden plank trembled as we stepped onto the soft mud. The natives crowded around us, their eyes scrutinized us, relaxing only when dad showed them his crucifix and the Bible. The adults pulled out their crosses from their huts and signaled they had already received the Holy Spirit, but they eagerly offered us the children.
Dad stepped into the river and the waters turned his white gown into a drowning ghost. "I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed..." and he extended his arms to welcome five young boys, "...swollen and was now deep water, a river impossible..." and ceremoniously pulled them into the same river they had been bathing in their whole lives, "...plentiful, for wherever the water goes it brings..." the waters of the Amazon and the skin of the children indistinguishably colored, "...inside him, welling up to eternal life," and pulled them out new men.
Father took off his gown, hung it out to dry and put on his white apron. Then the dirty work began. We took the natives up to the boat in pairs and sat them down in an armchair bought in Manaos just for this purpose. Most of them sat tight and cooperated, took the shot of anesthesia without blinking, smiled with blood in their teeth when it was all done. There was not much he could do. Pull out a couple of teeth, antibiotics for the infections. Give them a good cleaning, which would only last them until their next meal. We averaged 7 souls and 25 teeth per village.
The goodbyes were what I dreaded the most. After the 6 or 7 hours spent with the natives, most times sharing a meal with them, their initial wariness had worn off. I could feel every one of their bones against my body when they hugged me. They would put on their ceremonial costumes to wave us of: bracelets and necklaces made of snake heads and crocodile teeth and their faces painted with bird entrails fluids, and it all rubbed off against my face and scraped my skin as they hugged me, each one of them. It was too much for a 10-year-old. I never asked to come along on this trip. I just wanted to be back home.
At the end, their gifts. They brought out three chickens, and grabbing them by their feet they hacked off their heads with a dull blade. Blood sprayed everywhere as the birds contorted, alive and headless. With a big smile on their face, they handed us the limp animals. It was all their basic economies could spare. We hung the chickens on the side of the boat and dropped them into the depths of the river once the village was out of sight.
I didn't feel much more at ease on board. As much as the rocking of the boat tried to lull me into a sleep at night, the sounds coming from the river and the jungle kept me awake.
One morning a strong need to pee pulled me out of bed. I lifted the lid to discover a snake in the toilet bowl, coiled up and staring at me. I froze. I must have been screaming, because my mother smacked the lid down from my hands and picked me up in her arms. There was a puddle of warm piss on the floor. I can still see the snake flicking its tongue at me.
I stayed away from the edges of the boat, the handrails were not to be trusted. I knew that, were I to go overboard, they might be able to pull my body out, but I would not be coming back up. I feared the river. The river and everything living in it, and the hunger they felt every day and the desperation in their eyes.
After a month out on the river we flew back home; I expected to feel relieved, expected to go back to my innocent usual self. But the river had changed me. Before, I only had the fear of God in me. But that journey put the fear of the world in me.
By the time I ran away, I had a sizeable portion of my body covered in tattoos, several holes punched in me, and hundreds of gallons of alcohol had been filtered through my kidneys. I had rebelled against my family. All I really wanted was for dad to admit he had been wrong in bringing me with him to the expedition. But he would never say that. I had tattooed and pierced the hell out of my boyhood innocence, but dad had given it the first blow. He cracked the shell, I simply removed the broken pieces.
Out there, I feared nothing. The rainy nights in nameless towns, jumping into cars with strangers, riding atop open wagons loaded with coal or iron ore, runnnig away from the police: it all felt so welcoming. I met other transients, forged temporary friendships and tried to build a home while homeless. I traveled the country looking for a reason to stop and stay somewhere. After years of aimless wandering around the states, I got on a plane to India.
Delhi greeted me with arms wide open but I wanted nothing to do with it. I ignored all maps and simply headed south, stopping at any small village that seemed welcoming enough. Most times there was no hotel, but the locals were more than friendly. Sometimes they didn't even accept the handful of rupees I offered. I slept in houses made of sun-dried mud bricks, ate from big banana leaves and learned to clean myself in the river.
I never stayed more than two nights in one place, until it happened. I caught dysentery in a small farming village by the Ganges 3 hours from Varanasi; I was bedridden for two weeks.
The villagers took me in while I poured my guts out. The biggest shrine there was dedicated to Kali, the goddess of destruction, and my piercings and tattoos reminded them of her. They laid me down in a wooden frame laced with thick hemp rope that served as a bed and shared their monotonous food with me.
By the time I recovered and was able to get out of bed, I had become part of the village. I plowed the land and helped travelers wash their camels in the river. I would get lost among the mango and banana groves in the morning, while the mist still hung low. I walked in there with nothing but a machete, and came back out with mangoes and coconuts to eat with the children. The local barber shaved me squatting down on the street in exchange for some baseball lessons.
And one day they arrived. They, with their trucks loaded with medical equipment and jugs of clean drinking water, their clean uniforms and foreign smiles. Doctors without borders. They took our temperature, listened to our hearts and lungs. A gynecologist for the women, special care was given to babies. And of course, there was a dentist among them.
My body tingled with excitement as I sat down on the chair after waiting in line.
"Open, please," the dentist said. She probed and prodded my mouth with a mirror and a scaler. "Does this hurt?"
I tried to mumble something without drooling too much, tried to find her avoiding eyes.
"You're going to need a root canal for this one, but I can't do that here. It's not urgent, though."
"Can't you just pull it out?"
Her eyes met mine, if only for a second.
I walked away with a mouth full of cotton balls and the taste of mint mouthwash mixed with blood.
After a few hours they had gone through us all. They took everything down, put it away in the trucks, and all of them got on, shut the doors, while the last doctor finished an old lady's prescription.
I looked at the scene in disbelief. "Wait, you're leaving already?" The doctor just looked and raised her eyebrows. I went next to the trucks to look at all of them. "You mean you just come here and do your check-ups and leave?" The doctors, the villagers and the children, they all stared at me in silence. "You mean to tell me you just come here, pull some teeth and leave?" I was shouting, breathing heavy. "What about... talking to us? What about... a meal with us? What about..." I looked towards the river. "What about a hug?"
"Come on Hala, let's go," somebody yelled from one of the trucks.
I stormed out and was back there some seconds later with a clucking chicken in one arm and a machete in the other.
"Well, don't forget your fucking present!"
I held the clucking beast upside down, its head almost touching the ground, and struck as hard as I could while keeping my eyes open. The bone-and-cartilage claws dug deep into my hand as I wrestled against the final tugs of the flapping bird. A trail of blood followed me to the truck and I smashed the animal on the windshield; white feathers danced against the silence of the crowd.
The following day I started walking down the road with the first light of the morning. The whole village rose early to watch me leave, but no one waved goodbye.