Just arrived in Belém off a 28-hour bus, grabbing a bite to eat at the station. A middle-aged lady approaches, motions to my food, asks if she can have some. I order her a pastry, and she goes ahead and orders herself a juice to go with it. I raise an eyebrow. “Suco também? Eu compro?” She smiles and shrugs like the ten-year-old girl she used to be.
He excuses himself to go use the restroom. I never noticed him eyeing up the young dude who came through selling pastels, but a few minutes later he returns to his seat all giddy-like. “I give blow job,” he proudly informs me. As my mind mixes up a mash of shock, amusement and disgust, I reply that he’s got something on his chin.
I usually find safety warnings to be overblown. Stay sober, don’t get lost, avoid confrontation. That steers you clear of 95% of trouble right there. But I get the distinct impression here in Belém that people aren’t exaggerating when they offer words of caution. Not sure how anyone could live here long-term, always looking over your shoulder.
Holiday’s book is having an impact. An evening walk down by the river provides two opportunities to practice strong boundaries. First the homeless teen making a grab for the money I was using to buy him dinner, then the weird old dude who told me he loved the IRA, considered U2 synonymous with God, and wanted to exchange contact info.
The oldest market in Latin America, fruits and colors never before seen, stalls stocked with little black voodoo jars, shirtless men from fit to fat, old broken ladies, young gatinhas, stepping over deep gutters, the buzz of a thousand merchants, the taste of cupuaçu, smells unfamiliar, air like a wet dog, batuque music wafting through.
I wake up in a small dark room, her arm reaching for me. She cried in my arms last night, but I don’t know why; she doesn’t have words to explain, and I don’t have words to understand. She’s beautiful but has a sadness underneath that wants to be forgotten. I’d like to help her forget, but we’re not alone. Sleeping three feet away is a woman thirty years older with the same smile.
Somehow I end up paying the bulk of the bill, and it ain’t cheap. I’m not a foodie, hate splashing big bucks for a meal. But before I get all resentful with these people across the table, I remind myself that there’s what happens, and there’s how I choose to think about what happens. And so I decide not to choose resentment. I choose something else.
The sex feels fake and mechanical, wishing we’d said goodbye yesterday. I move to switch positions but she rolls to the side as if we’re done. “Duas vezes,” she smiles, then turns her attention to the TV. I stare at her, incredulous. “Eu não vezes,” I say. “Não estou feliz.” She smiles and shrugs, and I miss Salvador all the more.
Logan’s a good guy, has helped me out big-time the past week, giving me a quiet place to work at his school, introducing me to people, taking me out to the jungle. He’s here with his wife and baby, the business fueling his philanthropic work. Or at least, that was the plan. Today he tells me they’re out of funds, gotta shut it all down.
First day on the river and I spend most of it on deck, just looking. Women and kids row out to grab plastic-wrapped gifts thrown by passengers. Little shacks dot the banks, most with a satellite dish and laundry on the line. There’s the occasional church, flashes of pink dolphin, few men to be seen. We’re a thousand miles from Manaus.
(You can see more pics from my five-day Amazon boat trip on Facebook.)
We watch a red sun disappear above the horizon and beyond the river. The Amazon is so wide in places you can’t see the far bank. A slice of moon appears in the darkened sky, soon joined by ten-thousand stars and the ghostly smear of our galaxy. I think of the first men to sail these waters, navigating the unknown by these lights in the sky.
Santarém is a city of some quarter million people, located right where the Tapajós meets the Amazon, clear water refusing to mix with muddy for many miles downstream. It doesn’t feel like a jungle town, with GoPros in shop windows and speakers blasting political jingles all along the main thoroughfare.
We’ve fallen into an evening routine, grabbing dinner together before claiming spots near the bow to watch the sun sink and stars emerge. Beth is from England, Siobhán from Scotland, both traveling solo. We sit and talk about books read, places been, people met, and I usually come away thinking I spoke too much and listened too little.
She must be in her late fifties and built like a tree trunk. Standing there in my cabin, gesturing almost wildly, and I barely understand a word she’s saying. There’s money mentioned and I’m not sure what she wants it for. A tip? Can’t imagine how she earned it. But I want this to be over, and R$20 seems like a reasonable price to pay.
Reminiscent today. It’s been three trips around the nearest star since I left home. I’ve met a lot of people, been through snow and desert, over mountains, up rivers and across oceans. Now here I am in the middle of the jungle. But thinking back on these last three years, what makes me smile most is the memory of ringing that doorbell in Slieverue.
In the comments below, let me know which of the above Momentos is your favorite. Which can you relate to?