Books, culture, fishing, and other games

September 27, 2003

Jewel of the Amazon

I've been swapping emails with Dad who's in the Amazon. He says he has good reliability through AOL (Yes, he's heard all my AOL rants, but it really does make sense for him to use it in this situation. What AOL does well is provide universal coverage.), though it's a long distance call to Manaus to connect. His connection is in the 18-19k speed range, but he uses it for email only so it's not too bad. The long distance rates aren't bad at night. He's actually based up on the frontier of Colombia, Peru and Brazil, so that's a good 500 miles or more as the urubu (the Amazon vulture) flies. Maybe that's a poor choice of bird for that expression. The urubu never flies in a straight line, it circles and circles. Urubus and I have some things in common.

Most of my old friends are down in Manaus these days. That is the only Amazon city in Brazil (within the state of Amazonas, that is. Brazilia, the capital of Brazil, is in the greater Amazon rainforest area, as are other cities of some size). There are some pretty big towns, but for real modern world type activities, it's the place, so everyone tends to live there at some point, or move there permanently. Most of my friends went off to school there once they hit their teens. While he was ther eon busines, Dad stayed with Jorge, who's married, with teenagers, and currently studying law.

I went to school myself one year down near Manaus, actually just an hour downstream or so by river launch, at the New Tribes school for missionary kids. Puraquequara, lake of electric eels, is the name of the "town." Manaus was famous, in those days, for its opera house, built during the rubber boom of the pre-World War II era, and for it's floating market. The opera house features in the movie Fitzcaraldo, as does the Iquitos one built at the same time. I really enjoy that movie because it comes closest to getting the experience of the Amazon right. Most, nearly all, movies set in the Amazon are too into the noble savage myth promulgated by Rosseau and sustained by urban liberals who haven't ever grubbed in the dirt to feed themselves. Fitzcaraldo did a brilliant job of contrasting the grime, the sweat and the disease with the opulence of the opera houses. Those rubber trees, and the routes to tend them in the remote jungle, killed a lot of people, blinded others, and left many invalids, but at the same time opened the area and made many people rich, as those opera houses prove.

The floating market was a market built on rafts of giant logs. This wasn't an organized construction project, it was an accumulation of rafts over time. You walked planks between the rafts. Some were acutally house rafts on which people lived. Their wastes went into the riverbut the river's flow kept the stink at a moderate level. Rafts are used extensively in the Amazon for anything set on the edge of river and land. This is because that river can fluctuation fifty feet between the wet and wetter seasons (there is no "dry" season, just one in which it rains a lot less than the rest of the time). So as the river rose, the rafts rose, and as it fell... you get the idea. There is some maintenance in keeping everything where you put it; the river has a powerful current in many places, and it's generally inexorable everywhere. All things flow east. So, things sometimes get pulled out of place and have to be pushed back, usually with the riverboats or launches.

And storms can be nasty too. These rafts can weight many tons when those logged get a bit waterlogged, but a storm with gale or better winds can move them even against the current. Dad built such a raft early on as a floating hangar for the floatplane. The logs used were somewhere in the ten foot in diameter range. I never saw them out of the water, so it;s hard to judge, like with icebergs. We used to scramble when a violent storm came through. There was no huddling indoors as thunder boomed and rain slashed horizontally against the shutters, we had to dash around in the riverband mud, soaked through, to resecure hawsers pulled loose by an abrupt reversal of tension, while Dad ran the plane's engine to counter, slowly, the wind. Pushing that huge thing against the current and wind was no minor thing.

I used to sleep on that hangar, in my early teens, as the night guard. Crime has always been an issue, mostly petty crime, and the mere presence of a guard did a lot to deter that. Of course, I had my shotgun, a 12 gauge goose gun, loaded with 00 buckshot, and my Airedale, Tuffy, with me, so I wsn't just a kid sleeping on the hangar. People in the area have great respect for dogs, and Tuffy was one of the most respected dogs in town. Airedales are very smart and very territorial. He owned that hangar and the yard. He rarely strayed, and outside his turf he was entirely docile. But no one set foot on that hangar without his permission. And I backed him up with a shotgun bigger than any other in town. (The locals all used 16 guage.) So Tuffy did the real work. He just woke me up if he needed backup. I never chambered a round. But everyone knew I slept with that gun beneath my cot.

Sleeping on the hangar, under a mosquito net, wasn't much of a chore. While things always cooled off at night, the river breezes at night kept that hangar cooler than most places in town. It was a luxury in that sense. I had my own room up in the house a couple of hundred feet away, but in this period I only used it for storage and for hiding out when I wanted to play lone wolf and read. It was a large closet in size. A lot of the houses down the block from me here have larger walk-in closets in their master bedrooms. But it was my room. My sisters, four of them then, had to share, two to a room.

Many years the river rose enough to flood the area under the house itself. Those pillars served their purpose. A series of drier years saw us wall it in and make a sort of basement down there. We had a shop and a ping pong table set up, and I had a larger room down there for a while. But when it flooded, everything had to move, me included. And the waves from passing boats pounded on those brick walls. When it was just the pillars the waves flowed through easily, but with the walls the whole house would shake. I remember dreams of the house falling down as a result of that artificial surf's actions.

Anyway, all of this was to note that Manaus, while in many ways still the same, has changed a lot. Way back when, in the late 60s or early 70s, Brazil declared Manaus a free port. The free trade zone created served its purpose, the city boomed, and it opened up the Amazon area more. Manaus is bigger than Altanta, where I live now, in population. I didn't really think it had progressed all that much, though, until I started meeting people from Manaus in classes here in the States on security products. It wasn't unusual to find someone from Brazil in a class, but my jaw dropped when one guy that I met told me he was "from" Manaus. It turns out that as a result of that free trade zone Manaus has become a major technology center in Brazil (according to him), and the university there is solid on tech.

This didn't really get me thinking then, I just found it neat and interesting that my old jungle-town stomping ground (well, that's exaggerating, I never spent that much time in Manaus proper) had come up so much. But since, with my move from systems engineering, where I was in front of customers all the time, to consulting, where I may see them occasionally, but mostly work solo and communicate electronically, I've started thinking I could live and work anywhere that I can find decent to good internet access. Manaus must now qualify.

I've avoided thoughts of moving back to that area because I don't want to live without this medium. It's my medium. For me, leaving it, unless for the next, superior one, would be like a fish climbing out of the water and flopping around on land. Okay, those walking catfish from Africa do that pretty well, and we have some fish in the Amazon that do it well too, but they do it to move from one body of water (usually that's evaporating out from under them) to another, not to take up residence on land. It's not so much by choice, as by temporary need. I leave computers and the internet behind (mostly) when I go trout fishing. Maybe that's analogous. After a week I start getting darned twitchy though. I feel too isolated, though part of the reason I go fishing is to get to that away-from-it-all place.

So these days I'm starting to explore the possibilities. Yes, I do feel an attachment to the Amazon culture. It would be great to head down to the market to pick up some real fresh fish (from the river hours ago, not flown in on ice from Alaska) and real tree-ripened fruit (not trucked in green, chosen to support the banging and bashing of the transit, not for flavor). I'd love to switch back to Guarana from Diet Coke (assuming my raving addiction will allow such a move...) The thought of all the humid heat, nope, we get that here in Georgia. And there is air conditioning there now, if I want a break from sweating a bit. Sure, there are snakes and bugs, and it's better to assume anything that can will bite and is probably to some degree poisonous, but that's what I know. It's not alien to me.

My dream, and it's mostly a dream, would be to truly reach the point where I can make my living online (maybe with the occasional face-to-face after a plane flight). This would detach me from any physical location. Internet banking is real, and here. I don't need a building. Email has long provided me with one point of contact, one that moves with me. And cell phones are almost to the point where it's practical to keep one cell phone number everywhere. Soon we'll have that, and we would already except for issues of government regulation as opposed to tech. A router with a built in sattelite uplink, or just a high speed wireless modem, isn't that far off from practical. I can almost do these things now. I can emulate them in most urban areas without much difficulty.

With dynamic DNS, my blogs and other online activities are entirely portable. I can move my server anywhere, anytime, without users knowing (aside from the 5 minute, now, outage, indistinguishable from BellSouth's hiccoughs). For some reason I feel like I'd blog more in Manaus. Why? The audience for online reading is mostly in the modern, urban world. Everything about Manaus, and the Amazon around it, is alien to them. Alien often translates to, and can easily be made, interesting. A walk down the street, described in detail, feels more interesting there than here in suburban America.

Of course, that's a purely subjective phenomenon. A good writer, and an interested one, could walk the three blocks from here to the local Publix, describe that walk, and rivet us all with the result. It's hard for me to work up that interest. Maybe if I did I'd become a real writer, sell some books, and be free to move.

Imagine that.

Posted by dan at September 27, 2003 12:27 PM | TrackBack
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