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Chapter 2


It was a real nutty blues lyric that I cooked up while standing there, needlessly, in the morning sun:

          Oh, riverboat come get me, come take me away!

          Take me down to Manaus, you can get there in four days.

          Blow your horn and I'll come running with my backpack shouldered high,

          An' four days later Saint Varig's chariot will lift me in the sky,

          To a blue heaven where the air is cool enough to think,

          Where you can get a glass of water that's pure enough to drink.

          Ol' riverboat, come get me, or my consulting job I'll lose,

          Ol' riverboat please don't leave me here to sing the Santa Isabel Blues.

     If I didn't get back to Miami quickly, my consulting project would go down the tubes. I thought long and hard about that three-foot stack of papers sitting on my desk in Miami.

     But my thoughts were not productive. Standing in the morning sun like a lazy river boy, I began to wonder if I was more like Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Physically, I'd make a better match with Huck Finn. You might describe my features, inherited from my second-generation Italian parents, as Mediterranean. I have lots of black hair on my head, and on my chest, too. At five-foot-eight, I'm a little on the short side. But a lot of girls have said that I have a winning smile, so maybe that's more like Tom Sawyer. I did admire the way Tom handled that fence painting assignment. And, come to think of it, our love interests have the same name: Becky is just short for Rebecca. It was Aunt Polly who'd cracked the whip over Tom, and it was Chief Medical Examiner Geoffrey A. Westley who'd administered the kick in the butt that got me into the Ph.D. program.

     Of course, my river was bigger than Tom's. The Amazon is a heck of a lot longer than the Mississippi and it puts out 12 times as much water. Even the Rio Negro, its northern tributary on which I was standing, puts out more water than the Mississippi.

     And the sun over the Rio Negro was a lot hotter. Maybe that's why so many of the Brazilian caboclos sat around chewing hallucinogenic ebene seeds like Huck Finn's Arkansas rednecks with their "chaws." How hopeless, when your only source of food is the fish you can pull from the river and the vegetables you can grow in your garden. How lucky I was to be born in the U.S. and to have a white collar job, even if it did require a lot of hard work and scheming.

     Standing under the brain-deadening sun, I began to understand the mindless exploitation of the Amazon basin. It's not easy to find a high-value product. It's easier to tear down forests to make paper pulp and charcoal. It's easier to rent your body to the owners of the gold and diamond mines. And if you turn stream beds into stagnant ponds and mountainsides into ugly pits, so what? Natural beauty is nice, but it doesn't put much food on the table.

     I waded into the water and soaked my head. I unbuttoned my khaki shirt and splashed my chest. That was much better, but the water was full of decay products from the rain forest floor: tannin and carboxylic acids. Jacques Cousteau reported that the pH gets as low as 3.2. Actually, the average value is about 5.2, which is low enough to kill mosquitoes. I wondered how fish could live in it.

     Attempting to fight off stupor with purposeful physical action, I walked along the river's banks in the downstream direction, working my way around stilt-mounted caboclo shacks, beached boats and fishing nets. One-half of a mile downstream, I found something interesting: a seaplane tied to a floating dock that extended a dozen yards into the river.

     I recognized it as a Lake Amphibian. It wasn't just a regular aircraft mounted on pontoons. This was a truly amphibious aircraft that sits in the water. Its underside had the hydrodynamic design of a high-speed boat. I walked up the dock and peered through the plane's large, rounded windshield. The cockpit was enormous. The pilot and copilot would have plenty of shoulder room. The high-winged plane would also afford good visibility through the large, rounded side windows. The aft portion of the fuselage tapered and rose. From just below the tail assembly protruded a tightly stowed grappling anchor. It looked like someone had stuck a multi-barbed fishhook up the plane's rear end. Oh, what innovations these bush pilots think up!

     The engine was mounted on a pylon, high above the passenger compartment and protected against splashing water. Retractable wheels were tucked in above waterline on either side. Nice plane if you live on the water. I heard that Jimmy Buffet has one of them down in the Florida Keys.

     Painted on the side of the aircraft was "Amazon Touristic." Funny suffix they used to end the word "tour." Certainly not Portuguese or English. What kind of tours did this plane take, anyway? Being 400 miles northwest of Manaus, our location was too remote for an "eco-lodge" catering to ecology-minded North American and European tourists. And the sport fishing boats didn't prefer the Rio Negro either. The river was dead compared to the main branch of the Amazon. And it seemed pretty expensive to use an airplane for a fishing boat.

     Maybe Amazon Touristic was providing "tours" for illegal substances. What would they be? The plane wouldn't have enough range to fly cocaine to the Florida Keys. It would have to refuel at the Venezuelan coast. And this area wasn't good for growing coca, anyway -- too wet and hot. The Andean growing regions were over 600 miles to the west and northwest. Maybe the plane was shuttling untaxed diamonds from the south. Or maybe it was supporting an illegal gold mining operation in the Yanomama Indian territory directly north of us.

     Several dozen yards up the bank was a stack of fuel drums. Farther inland was a sprawling shack with a tin roof. Of course, it would have been ridiculous and possibly dangerous to knock on the door and try to talk with someone about the plane.

     I went back to my tent and ate a quick lunch of combat rations. Afterwards, I knocked on the door of the Funai station. The husband and wife team who were running it invited me in for a cup of coffee. Marcello and Lucia Campos de Carvaloh weren't much older than me. Marcello had the dark curly hair and olive complexion that you might expect to see in Lisbon. Lucia had a long, handsome face with nicely formed eyebrows and a robust head of black hair that made charming curls around the collar of her white blouse. Trade their shorts and sandals for a J.C. Penney ensemble and neither would have looked out of place in the downtown of Providence, Rhode Island.

     They spoke little English, so we made do with Portuguese -- their Portuguese and my Spanish which I tried to bend in the direction of Portuguese. The conversation was hard work, requiring ingenuity of everyone's part. Most of the time, Marcello stood back with crossed arms, letting Lucia do most of the talking and supplying only an occasional nod. Lucia worked hard to answer my questions, emphasizing certain words with a blink of the eye and elaborating on others with a diverse repertoire of gestures of her shapely forearms.

     She said that I was welcome to stay another night in the tent and not to worry -- a southbound freighter was sure to come by the next day. She explained that this was their first government assignment. They were responsible for indigenous affairs for part of the Pico da Neblina National Park in the southwestern portion of Yanomama territory directly north of us, on the Rio Marauiá. The whole territory is about the size and shape of Pennsylvania, with the southern part belonging to Brazil and the northern part to Venezuela. She explained that a low mountain range makes the division. Access from the Brazilian side is via a half-dozen rivers that flow into the Rio Negro.

     Lucia said that I shouldn't worry about Rebecca's safety because Senhor Doutor Thompson has made this trip every year for five years with no trouble. Theirs was not the busiest or most troubled of the Funai posts responsible for the Yanomama Indians. Of course, the eastern section by Boa Vista had a lot of trouble with the garimpeiros -- the gold miners -- when they invaded the region, 15 years ago. But the garimpeiros were thrown out and the damage is healed.

     I thanked my hosts for the explanation and asked how they could help Rebecca if she got into trouble.

     Lucia said that they control access up the Rio Marauiá and that no one is allowed up the river without a permit. They had shortwave radio contact with the Mission and had a satellite phone to speak to Manaus in a rare emergency. Sometimes they had to ship a young man down the river for treatment when he breaks his arm in a fight. But the Indians who are in contact are more peaceful, now. Machetes are allowed up the river now, because they are used to construct shabonos -- the tribes' communal huts. But handguns, rifles and shotguns are not allowed.

     Lucia said one of their jobs was to coordinate public health programs. Once a year, an Army doctor goes upriver to give vaccinations. "It is nice that Senhora Doutora Levis is helping at the Mission and giving them better health care," she said with a sympathetic smile. "No, there is no chance that she will come into danger."

     The conversation took nearly two hours. I thanked Lucia and Marcello for their hospitality and retired to my tent where I ate a dinner that was a lot like lunch -- freeze-dried military rations.

     When nightfall came, it came very quickly. Although intending to go to sleep early, I was distracted by music wafting in from the distance. I wondered if it was coming from the waterfront bar that Rebecca and I had seen by the landing where our freighter had put in. Encouraged by the thought that I'd done something that day to earn a cold beer, and that alcohol would help me to get to sleep, I grabbed a flashlight and followed the jeep trail to the Rio Negro.

     The bar was a couple of hundred yards up the river. It was built on poles for protection against flooding. I walked up a wooden stairway along the woven reed wall, ascending to a planked platform that held a bar and two rough-hewn picnic tables, lighted by several bare bulbs hanging from the thatch ceiling. The music was coming from an oversized boom box, also hanging from the ceiling. I guessed the power was coming from the portable generator I'd heard while approaching the stairs. The edge of the platform was secured with a rope strung between the outside poles that held up the roof. The bar was little more than a high, eight-foot-long table with a woven reed skirt. Behind it was a barmaid, wearing a string bikini bottom and a shapeless, tight-fitting halter top that flattened her small breasts. Yes, this was probably the halfway station to a cathouse further up the river.

     One of the tables was occupied by three caboclos who were engaged in serious conversation. The other table was empty, but it sat directly under the boom box which was turned up full blast. So I grabbed a wicker stool at the end of the bar. At the other end sat a blond, gringo-looking guy who must have been six-foot-three. He had heavy bones, solid muscles, brooding posture and a broad, solid face that was deeply furrowed. He was probably in his upper thirties but could easily pass for mid-forty. His left cheek bore a long scar and his forehead bore a short one. Were these the result of an on-the-job accident or a knife fight? Coarse, wavy blond hair hung well over his ears but not to the shoulder. I gave him a respectful nod before sitting down.

     "Una cervesa," I said to the barmaid. She understood that a beer was ordered and ducked under the bar and rummaged in a tiny refrigerator, the type that runs off of 12 volt power in recreational vehicles.

     Although I hadn't spoken those two words half as loud as the boom box, the guy at the end of the bar got into the act immediately. He started telling me, in heavily German-accented English, that I wasn't pronouncing the word for beer right in Portuguese.

     "Uma cerveja," he corrected. He said it again and again, drawing out the m in uma and the j in cerveja like I was a dumb kid who was hard of hearing. He gave me no choice but to repeat it after him.

     He finally let me off the hook. "So ist's richtig, mein Ami Brüderlein." His deep, forceful bass voice sounded strangely familiar. It was those records that a Swarthmore prof had played for us back in German 101 -- of a guy singing in German about sailing the high seas and visiting ports all over the world. "Freddy" or "Heino" was the singer's name.

     And this drunken Nordic Goth had just called me "little brother."

     The barmaid pulled out a bottle, uncapped it and set it in front of me, then disappeared behind a rope curtain. Having the glass bottle in my hand made me feel more secure -- against the case where verbal defenses failed.

     By putting together my college German and some experiences around Miami Beach, I had enough banter to stand up to this know-it-all. I couldn't yield an inch or he'd browbeat me all evening. "Sure, I'm small enough to be your Brüderlein, but how do you know I'm your bon ami?"

     Over the din, he yelled back that he wasn't speaking any lady's French and that "Ami" means Amerikaner. He pronounced the word as "AH-me," like "army" without the r. Then I remembered this was a sort of derogatory expression, like us calling the Germans "krauts."

     I tried to make a joke of it, yelling back something about Amerikanischer Freund, a German film I'd seen on video. It was directed by Werner Herzhog and featured Dennis Hopper. My German friend picked up his bottle and dragged his stool over to me, muttering something about Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider and opining, "Deutsche Filme, alles Scheisse."

     It was strange to hear a German tell me that German films were a crock. It was also strange to be sitting face to face with a guy who looked like the German actor Klaus Kinski. Which one of those widely spaced blue eyes was dominant, anyway? They weren't focusing well because he was soused. And he was gesticulating wildly, forcing me to stay on guard against a slap on the back or maybe a punch in the face. And I wasn't the only one who was worried: A muscular caboclo dressed in shorts, a Hawaiian print shirt and flip-flops came in through the rope curtain and busied himself with wiping the counter in front of us.

     Finally, the Kinski look-alike rested his eyes on the barkeeper. He shouted, "Naõ vou causar problemas." He would not cause problems. He muttered in German, "Kein Problem," then in English, "I won't tear down your bar, this time." He turned back to me and smiled like we were old friends. He raised his bottle and said, "Trink, amerikanisches Brüderlein."

     I raised mine and said, "Prost."

     We drank.

     "To beer," he said, "the only language. To the beer what you have in your hand. To the only two cold beers in this Affen-Dschungl between Manaus and Caracas."

     I drank to that, then asked, "What is an Affen-Dschungl?"

     "That is where the Dschungl-Affen are. The jungle monkeys. So tell me, mein Freund, what are you doing in this Affen-Dschungl?"

     "I came this far with my Frau. She's going to do some medical work at a mission, one-hundred miles up the Rio Marauiá."

     "And you are staying here?" he asked with a snort.

     "I'm taking the next freighter back to Manaus. The Funai people are keeping track of her."

     "Qwatch," he said. That translates into bullshit. "How do you think they can keep track of her sitting on their Arsch on the wrong side of the river?"

     "You seem to know a lot about this place. What do you do here?"

     His face clouded over. "Sometimes, I fly tourists in my plane."

     "Oh. Are you the one who owns Amazon Touristic? That's a nice Lake Amphibian."

     "You like the plane? Maybe, you want me to fly you out of this Dreckloch. Get you out fast." He shouted his sales pitch in metronomic rhythm.

     "How much would it cost to Manaus?"

     He eyed me for a couple of seconds and thought for a couple more before answering. "Four hundert dollars, American."

     "That's too much for me." Scientific consulting wasn't bringing in enough money, yet.

     He leaned into me with a big conspiratorial smile. "Maybe I will take you along half-price if I have to go to Manaus in a day or two."

     "Thanks, but I think it's better to get the next boat out of here."

     "Ja, ja! If it doesn't stick itself on a sandbar." This came out in a sarcastic monotone. With its sharply pronounced consonants and low vowel tones, his type of German accent can be damn intimidating, anyway.

     He didn't say more. He lit a cigarette.

     I wondered if he would bother Rebecca if he came across her. It would be better to have him as an ally. "I bet you get some good jobs around here. Pretty smart, getting an amphibious plane. You have a lot of landing places."


     "What kind of flying do you do?"

     "All kinds." Then he yelled to the barkeeper in Portuguese and repeated it in English for my benefit: "Another beer. And another one for my amerikanischen Freund, here."

     While the barkeeper got moving on the order, my German friend picked up his bottle, drank it empty in one chug, and then banged it down on the counter.

     So he didn't want to talk about what kind of flying he did. I gazed at his face diffusely, like I was a live-and-let-live kind of guy who didn't think he was making sense at the moment.

     He frowned, shook his head and dropped his eyes to the counter while the bartender set down two new bottles. "I take Texas Öl millionaires up the river where the fishing is."

     I acted like I believed him, but I didn't, really. There was plenty of good fishing off of boats closer to Manaus. "Yes, I see how a guy could make a lot of money with that."

     "You talk like a businessman."

     "No, I'm just a scientist who has learned to think like a businessman."

     "Ja, Brüderlein, you have . . . how do they say? . . . a nose for money. And maybe you know something about dealing with Bürokraten." He picked up his bottle. I followed suit and we clinked bottoms to notion of bureaucrats as something to be dealt with. "Prost," he said, and took a swig. He was really drunk, and getting drunker by the minute. He brooded silently for a long time, then let loose a tirade. "Prost to the Indian-counters who don't want to risk their precious Hubschraubers over the Dschungel to count their Dschungel-Affen villages. Prost to the Bürokraten who pay me to count them."

     So he was an independent contractor doing aerial surveys of Indian villages for the Brazilian federal bureaucracy. Great! Then he wasn't a smuggler and wouldn't be dangerous except when drunk.

     The samba music subsided and was replaced by a slower number sung in a sad, plaintive voice that might have been Tania Maria.

     My German friend relaxed, and so did I. During the next several minutes he told me that Hubschrauber was the German word for helicopter and those machines weren't especially good around here because the tail rotors could be damaged by logs and bushes in the forest clearings. Yes, maybe the Hubschrauber was okay for delivering soldiers in the Vietnam-Krieg, but not here. And the Brazilianer didn't have enough good mechanics to keep them going.

     "What this country needs," he said, "is for some German mechanics to come here and take care of their machines -- and their women, too!"

     So there he was -- a free lancer, operating in an exotic foreign land, but still chauvinistic towards his Vaterland. I'd experienced enough of these guys at the bars around the south end of Miami Beach to be able to guess at this one's history: son of a hard-working tradesman, didn't make the cut for the college-preparatory Gymnasium at the age of ten, channeled into the non-academic Volkschule until the age of 16 when his next option was to pick a trade and begin an apprenticeship. But in some Germans, the Teutonic spirit is too strong to be beaten down by the pedagogues of the Latein Schule. This guy was too much of a free spirit to let anyone box him into a narrow social category. So here he was -- individualist and one-man social phenomenon, busted out of the German welfare state and seeking adventure in the Brazilian Amazon among the Dschungel-Affen.

     "What brought you here from Germany?" I asked, with genuine interest.

     He smiled at me like I was an old friend. "I came here on a Bums-Bomber for vacation. For fun in the sun." He grinned and rubbed his fingers together like some people do to suggest money. But since bumsen is slang for banging male and female flesh together, I was sure his gesture pertained to that. "Then I hear they need pilots to fly to the Mienen," he said.

     "The mines? Were you flying garimpeiro supplies out of Boa Vista."

     "Ja! You know about that?" he asked with enthusiasm. "I was flying a DC-3, just like the Berliner-Luft-Brücke. Ja, das waren noch Zeiten," he said, relaxing into a nostalgic trance.

     "Around 1990?"


     I relaxed into contemplation, letting the music -- now a raucous samba -- fill the hole in our conversation. Yes, he looked old enough to have been in his early twenties about 13 years ago. So here was a guy who had flown "Berlin airlift" for the Garimpeiro Invasion, flying in diesel-driven pumps to wash out stream beds and barrels of mercury to extract the gold and poison the land.

     Yes, those were the days, my friend. I'd seen pictures of that Alaskan gold rush scene in magazines: Crates stacked twelve high at the Boa Vista airport, the town surrounded by thousands of shacks and saloons, with whorehouses springing up like mushrooms, and everything paid in gold until you went bust. Save your last forty dollars for a flight out on a DC3.

     "Yeah, those were the days," I said with irony.

     My conversation partner drew himself up. "Ja, but the Scheiss-Politiker decided those swines were making too much Dreck in the Dschungel-Affen's rivers. Especially the Quecksilber."

     "Yeah, quicksilver is poisonous, you know. Poisonous to everything except the bacteria. They're the only ones who know how to get rid of it. They methylate it to get it out of their cells and into someone else's."

     But science and sarcasm were both lost on this guy.

     "Ja, they make a Quecksilber Schweinerei and then the Scheiss-Politiker make the army come in and throw us out. And for many years, I make a living flying your Texas millionaires to their fish camps. And here I sit, now, in this Scheissloch waiting for orders from a pink Schwein so I can go hanging my tail in the jungle and hooking sausages." He said that with agitation that forced him off his bar stool.

     I understood the first part but couldn't understand what he meant by taking orders from a pink swine and hooking sausages with his tail. And although he was already drunk, I ordered and paid for another round. Didn't want to owe him anything. And as we drank our last round, he rambled on for quite a while, calling the indigenous Brazilians "jungle apes," saying that the Dutch were loud-mouthed and stingy, that the Japanese might have "fine-mechanics" but all their men had small equipment, and although the Americans have a big country and their men have big equipment, they don't have any Feinmechaniker and can't build good cars like Mercedes and BMW.

     I couldn't let that go unchallenged. "I bet that the Americans probably manufactured the Bums-Bomber that flew you over here to go bumsen."

     He laughed and slapped his knee. "Bumsen! Ja, das ist gut. Bumsen! You want to go bumsen tonight? We go together to the house down the path. There are four of them there." He reached into his left pocket and pulled out a wad of money. "I give you one, and I take three!" He let loose a loud bass laugh. "Komm, Freund. We go bumsen together." His heavy hand came down on my shoulder.

     "No. Sorry. I'm too tired, tonight. But thanks. My name's Ben Candidi." I extended my hand. "Really nice talking to you. What is your name?"

     "Klaus-Dietrich. Klaus-Dietrich Grünhagen. From Nörten-Hardenberg. That is where they make the good Schnaps."

     "Glad to meet you Klaus-Dietrich. Maybe I'll come see you if I can't get a freighter."

     "Ja, maybe I see you tomorrow morning." He let me go.

     I didn't see him the next morning. He apparently slept in. So did the Funai couple. But I didn't, and before nine in the morning I was aboard a Manaus-bound cargo boat.

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