There’s something satisfying about watching mosquitoes from inside a mosquito net canopy which I rigged up here in my modest hotel room. Mosquitoes are annoying, but in Amazonia, they also make me nervous. Good thing I bumped up my yellow fever vaccination.
Otherwise, it’s a lazy Sunday in Suriname, the Dutch-speaking, left-side-driving nation on South America’s little-known north coast.
I arrived into Amazonia on a most unusual and frankly outrageous route that included two hours in a cargo plane and then four days and nights on a riverboat.
A month ago, determined to get to Amazonia but unable to cross Venezuela, and unwilling to ride 3,000 winding Andean miles to Bolivia only to have to return north again on brutal roads, I packaged the motorcycle on a cargo palette and flew from Bogotá to Leticia, the remote river city in Colombia’s far southeast panhandle. En route, out the aircraft window — the Lungs of the World — nothing below but thick jungle canopy, absolutely roadless, and somewhere in that almost infinite thicket, a trillion living things.
It’s easy for North Americans to underestimate the sheer size of South America. An American once asked me, “Is Brazil bigger than Texas?” In fact, Brazil is larger than all the 48 contiguous U.S. states, combined. Colombia alone is nearly three times the size of California.
After touching down in Leticia, I transferred over the border to its sister town, Tabatinga, Brazil, where I rode the moto aboard a riverboat for a four-day downriver cruise to Manaus, the capital city of Brazil’s largest state, Amazonas. This trip so far has been through familiar countries, albeit around 90% traversed on new routes. Now I am heading into the unknown, and with a palpable sense of romance.
As the boat chugged along, I had nearly 100 hammock hours to read, sleep, and ponder this fresh attempt at Amazon adventure. Memories of 2012, when I survived mud and mess in Bolivia’s Amazon basin, a motorcycle crash and several injuries, followed by an ignominious retreat back to civilization in La Paz, still haunt me.
That attempt was then. This is now. After nearly 1,000 river miles floating through the world’s most massive forest, on the world’s most voluminous river, I finally arrived into Manaus, the city at the heart of the Amazon.
Manaus is situated at the massive mile-wide confluence where the dark waters of the Río Negro meet the brown waters of the Río Solimões. The austere river cruise thankfully featured no pirate invasions, no cannibals, no attacks from piranhas nor anacondas — only the occasional attack of boredom.
I’ve got about five words in Portuguese, so Brazil felt a little lonely. Portuguese is related to Spanish, so I tried putting on a deep, sexy back-of-the-throat “wow” sound at the end of some Spanish words and of course that doesn’t work. Now I’m simply speaking Spanish, like throwing words at a wall, hoping for the best, and then marveling at what sticks. There is no substitute for sincerity of effort and humility in expression and body language. “Obrigado,” or “thanks,” also goes a long way. When all else fails, mercifully, I could still point my way to some of their tapioca offerings, a product of the abundant regional cassava plant.
Tapioca, yes, in all its forms. Such as an egg burrito wrapped in a tapioca tortilla, then tapioca pudding, dry tapioca over some bland pasta or rice — tapioca any way tapioca could be prepared. North Brazilian cuisine doesn’t match the intensity of the country’s other passions, but the sheer variety of delicious, exotic fresh fruit juices more than compensated.
On the moto again, due north out of Manaus, there were many waterfalls, the water itself a copper hue from minerals in the rich Amazonian soil. All the little rivers and heavy forest remind me of Idaho backcountry, except here it is so steamy, and here I considered the very real risk of jaguars rather than grizzlies.
Passing through 00° 00.000 latitude, the equatorial climes, and things couldn’t have been any more smooth. This newly-built paved road connecting Manaus and Boa Vista is as straight and solitary as any I’ve seen since departing the United States, except there’s so much magic. Little yellow butterflies fluttering all around, wildlife I can’t imagine, on top of an awesome sense of being surrounded by the vast and unknowable unknown of the virtually impenetrable forest.
I discovered Guyana, that most forsaken country, for the first time at the dusty border town of Lethem. There’s only one route to the north coast, a mud track, the treacherous Rupununi Road. Comprising savannah, grasslands, and rainforest, and meter-deep muddy waterholes spread over nearly 300 miles, sometimes as slick as ice. This is raw jungle, often just one lane wide, laid at the bottom of a dark, mostly sun-free trench made from the tall forest on either side.
My bike’s carburetor breather hole somehow never took a big gulp of that mudwater; the only thing more amazing was the fact that somehow I never dropped the bike. Not once. Had I dropped it in those deep, dark water crossings, I’m sure it would’ve been submerged and I wouldn’t have had the strength to lift it up from the abyss. I still don’t know how it all worked out.
I continue to reflect, in particular, on the first 70 miles of Day 3 from Kurupukari to Mabura.
Although this is the “dry” season, that’s mostly relative, as a strong rainstorm did pass over the prior two days, so I knew there would be plenty of wet mud in the low-lying stretches.
The night before I departed from Kurupukari, after the ferry over the Esequibo River, four country boys were telling me what lies ahead on the road to Mabura. From their expressions I knew it would be grave. These fellas aren’t Dockers-wearing cubicle-dwellers, either; some were lumberjacks, some were bauxite miners, all with skin the color of coal, dripping with fortitude and descended from centuries of slavery.
Looking back, I was a little psyched out. That night alone in my hammock, I must’ve fallen into the zone. I don’t believe getting to “the zone” is a conscious process, it just starts with a whiff of fear and a sense of gravity, then a sort of humbling of the heart, and then some sort of resolve emerges from within.
Early the next morning, I couldn’t believe when I passed the first giant mudhole without losing my grip. I broke traction several times but always managed to stay vertical. Picking my line through more muck, occasionally I’d choose the least intimidating hole only to find it nearly swallowed the front wheel and damn near endo’d me, twice.
I remember approaching these bogs, these massive mud and water traps, and wondering if I should break my concentration and stop for a photo. But no, I was in that zone, in some perfect synchronicity of the physical and the mental, and I never even slowed down. The memories are mine alone, I suppose, but isn’t everything?
A Rastafarian in a souped-up 4x4 with gnarly tires and an overhead carburetor snorkel two meters high approached me from the rear and I squeezed over to let him pass. I noticed him waiting 5-10 miles ahead, and again and again, he would pull away just as I got close.
I saw him in Mabura, at the end of the worst, as I sat there chugging water in near disbelief that I’d made it, all without dropping the bike. I shouted over at him, “you were looking after me, weren’t you?” He just smiled that toothy Rasta smile and shot back, “you woulda done the same for me, Mon.”
It makes sense that those country boys I met back in the bush referred to Georgetown as “Town.” In such a small country, this bustling city, the capital, is really it. Never have I seen so many cultures in one place. New York City, nothing! Town makes New York seem almost provincial. Gritty people from every corner of the world, channeled to Town via all the previous empires that put their stamp here in the past 400 years; French, Dutch, British, Indian, plus African slaves, and from what I see now, an “independent” Guyana with heavy Hindu and Muslim faith plus a strong Chinese business and cultural influence.
This Creolese-Englishese language is quite something, in many cases I have to ask “the Mon” three times to repeat himself. The old Chinese woman at the hotel had no Creolese but plenty of Spanish so we got ‘er done.
After a week in Guyana, and now following a relatively comfortable night in Suriname, I probably need to admit I’m nowhere near as multicultural nor as international nor as tough as I imagined myself.
This is going to be hard to write but it should probably be done.
Something in Guyana was breaking me. I was losing my grip. A full month there, and I might either be assimilated or dead. Probably dead.
Looking back, it started sneaking up on me the moment I crossed from Brazil into the dusty border town at Lethem, and things there seemed adorably kookie. Like nothing I’d ever seen before.
The first real slap hit me when I arrived after dark into the dimly-lit village of Annai, after three hours of mud and light rain on the Rupununi Road. I couldn’t understand a word of anyone’s Creolese, and there in front of a noisy saloon I asked a guy standing outside about a restaurant, told him I was hungry, and then realized he was actually peeing right at me. Like it was no big deal.
The next night was on the Esequibo River out in the jungle and I remember talking with those tough country boys, and we had a pretty good rapport going. Without me bringing it up, churches and missionaries were the topic, and a British guy said there’s none out here in the jungle, because they were all “dismissed” some time ago. Harsh as that sounds, I think I smiled a bit on the inside. A country with no religion? Really? Interesting!
But it wasn’t until arriving into Georgetown that I think the first big waves hit me. Religion was everywhere here, more deep and diverse than anywhere I’d ever experienced. Cars with Bible quotes on the rear windows driving next to cars with “Shiva’s Blessings” cartoon stickers driving in front of impressive Mosques and enchanting Mandirs built right next to Synagogues, with Chinese “Great Trading” stores and Africans walking around, everywhere.
There could be no stranger gumbo soup than this one. “Strange” from the limitations of my vantage point, of course. Everywhere I went, everyone with whom I interacted ... I never felt so foreign. So ... not understood.
Just as language is a local, culturally-determined mechanism of the shared need to communicate, for me, different religions are just different cultural interpretations of the same divine sensations most humans share.
In this big soup emerges a strange logic in all things. A logic that doesn’t jive with the logic of my own brainwashing. It’s as though the logic of the big soup of Guyana is a bizarre alchemy of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Chinese philosophies, Brazilian, Cuban, Amerindian, and whatever deities are still in the hearts of all the Africans descended from the slaves who worked for centuries on these sugar plantations.
Maybe this sounds beautiful, and maybe it really is. After all, 700,000 Guyanese, maybe the world’s most diverse compilation of people, are indeed living together in obvious harmony.
But I didn’t fit. I knew it when I crossed into Suriname and the air changed back to something more familiar. All the comfortable Dutch door handles and toilets and food and language and order returned me to a happy couple of years I spent in Amsterdam.
It was all so comfortable, I wanted to weep.
I’ve never been a Christian, never will be, but I now see I’m inexorably, unbearably a product of western Christendom.
Guyana was like an hors d-oeuvre for the larger world that awaits. From here under my mosquito net, safely in Suriname, like a man in a bunker, I am plotting the next moves.