When the tall lady in the sun hat came wading ashore from the dugout canoe, in the battering heat, deep in the Amazonian rain forest, it was an ideal moment for a memorable greeting, H.M. Stanley style. In the event, though, my words came lamely: "Oh, uh, there you are, Kay!"
Her response was altogether more relevant, sharper. "Splash!" she called. "Kick your feet up!"
I stopped as I waded out from the sandbar to meet her. "Why?" I wanted to know.
"Stingrays," she said brusquely. And that was the first piece of jungle-river lore that Kay Brodney, 61, head of the Life Sciences Subject Catalog Section of the Library of Congress, had to impart. And she elaborated: that in the Amazon system, stingrays will lie in the shallowest, warmest water; that if you step on one you can expect 12 hours of pain so intense that victims have broken their own limbs in their agonized thrashing; but that if you splash as you wade, the rays will scuttle out of your way.
May 17, 1981
However, when both of us were on dry land, shaking hands, Brodney was careful to avoid drama. "People think that I'm a mad, brave old woman to come out fishing in a place like this, living like an Amerindian," she said. "But, hell, I've been robbed twice on the streets of D.C., and each time it was more frightening than anything I've met in a rain forest."
The baking sandbar on which she now stood was about 3,500 miles from D.C. as the vulture flies. It was one of the bleached, dry-season bones of the Rio Branco, which flows south out of the highlands of Guyana into Brazil to join the Rio Negro, which, in turn, meets the Amazon at the city of Manaus. On the map that she had sent me months earlier, Brodney had circled Manaus in red ink. Alongside she had written laconically, "Beds. Ice." On our Rio Branco sandbar, those beds, that ice, were more than 300 tortuous river miles distant, a two-week journey, give or take a day or two, by a chugging old river launch.
It was from Manaus that photographer Mick Brennan and I had set out to rendezvous with Brodney and her companions in the Amazonian wilderness. They had set out 10 days earlier, from the northern Brazilian town of Boa Vista, way upstream on the Branco. From there they planned to truck down to the village of Caracarai, below the last rapids on the Branco, pick up boats and meet us at the tiny settlement of Santa Maria, halfway to Manaus and 40 miles south of the Equator.
"We'll have done all the scouting by then," Brodney had written me. "We'll have the fishing pinned down. [In the dry season in Amazonia, the fish tend to mass in tributaries and lake systems.] We can fish the Itapera, a veritable brood-pond of large tucunarè, arawana, trahira, pirapacu. There may be some arapaima."
Those are the Indian names, half-rendered into Portuguese, of fish that only the head of the Life Sciences Subject Catalog Section was likely to be acquainted with. Fish, one was tempted to imagine, that were caught using alligator tails for lures. Or maybe live snakes.
But one would be wrong. Brodney had made it clear that she would be taking only fly-fishing gear into the jungle, and she would be making no compromises. Into the simmering Amazonian hothouse she would bring the ethical standards of the purist fly-fisher. And those crazy-sounding species, she promised, would be worthy of them.
Brodney has devoted most of her life to fishing. She started out on pike and bass near her hometown of Fond du Lac, Wis., and in her 20s hitchhiked to California. "A classic dropout," she calls herself. One day in 1948 she happened to be in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park while a casting tournament was taking place. "I saw those lines swishing about and it changed my whole life," she says. "Women weren't recognized for doing much distance casting then, just accuracy events. Once I took third place in the Western Championship down at Long Beach. I went to get my prize but I found I hadn't qualified because I wasn't a man."
By the time she was in her mid-30s, Brodney reckons, she had become a card-carrying fishing bum. She never had much money and she went through about 50 jobs, the steadiest one clerking at a railroad office. But she did manage to acquire a Volkswagen Camper. It took her all over northern California fishing for steelhead and shad.
That didn't satisfy her for long. She moved up to Eureka, Calif. and continued to try to make do with odd jobs, mostly as a waitress. But the work was seasonal. Sometimes Brodney couldn't raise gas money. So she moved to Seattle, on the grounds that it was 800 miles nearer to the Kispiox River in British Columbia. And it finally came upon her that she had better qualify herself for some occupation. She took a job as a clerk-typist at the State Fishery. At night she worked in the University of Washington Fishery and Oceanography library cataloguing reprints, the bottom end, she says, of the library business.
When the Washington Department of Fishery moved to Olympia in 1960, Brodney dropped her state job for one with the Feds. And she kept on with her cataloguing job. For five years she went to school and worked a 60-hour week in her two jobs. At the end of that time she had a B.A. in zoology and $1,000 in hand. All of which she blew on a tarpon-fishing trip to Baja California that turned out to be a bust.
In the ensuing years, she saved enough from her dual employment to take an annual fishing trip: Nova Scotia for salmon, Florida for tarpon, but nothing truly off the beaten path, nothing that could be called exotic angling. Apart from those trips, Brodney's life was a little boring. Mostly she was "reading" fish scales. "After a while I could see that it was going to be either fisheries work or the library," she says. "And the more I saw of those damn doctorate guys, the more it looked to me like books. Big-shot doctors reading scales all day, racial analysis of the red salmon. All that chemistry of the blood stuff And then something happened that really turned me off. A field trip to the Kispiox came up and they wouldn't let me go. This would be around 1963, before Women's Lib really started up. They sent some pip-squeak male instead, junior to me. That was the end of my scale reading.
"I checked and found that a master's program in library science at Rutgers was the fastest and cheapest way for me to get an advanced degree. It took a year. Then I got a job in the Library of Congress. I've been there 16 years, and I can blow five or six grand a year on fishing!"
On the Saturday night before Brennan and I were to leave for Brazil, Brodney got a call through to me in New York City from Boa Vista. There was a little delay in obtaining the boats, she said, but the governor of Roraima Territory, in which we would be fishing, was taking a keen interest in the expedition. Meanwhile, by the time Brennan and I arrived in Manaus, officials would have made arrangements to fly us into the strip at Santa Maria by light aircraft. A message confirming the arrangements would await us at the Tropical Hotel.
It's 5 a.m. when you get to the Tropical after clearing Manaus customs following the weekly airline flight from Miami, and at that point your main interest lies in getting to bed, which seemed all the more reasonable when we found no message awaiting us. But it was sure to be there soon. The morning would be time enough to study the governor's instructions, we felt.
I arose at the respectable (considering the circumstances) hour of 10:30 the next morning, and after breakfast sauntered over to the main desk. No message. No message? How strange. A message for a Mr. Brennan, then? No, sir. No need to worry, I told myself, suppressing a qualm or two. The officials were being considerate. Knowing at what hour we had arrived, they were holding off until lunchtime. It occurred to me that I was doing all the donkey work, so I woke Brennan up. "We ready to leave?" he grunted sleepily. I told him that I didn't know.
At lunchtime I still didn't know. "Better call the airport," Brennan said. "The air taxi company. They're probably waiting out there for us."
The interesting news from the airport, politely conveyed to us by the young man at the hotel desk who had made the call for us in Portuguese, was that no one had heard of us. Also, that the last aircraft to head to Santa Maria, three years previously, had disappeared into the jungle with all hands.
Brennan, an Irishman raised in London and transplanted to Manhattan, sat down on his suitcase and put his head in his hands. "I could call the priest," the desk clerk said.
Brennan looked at him alarmed. "It's not as bad as that," he said.
"I mean the priest with the airplane," said the clerk. "The one who goes to see the Indians." He looked at our tackle. "The priest who catches the tucunarè."
The Reverend Bennie de Merchant of the United Pentecostal Church of Brazil, a native of New Brunswick, Canada and 16 years a jungle missionary, might have been a little disturbed to be described as a priest, but he responded to our call. The trip up to Santa Maria would be a long one, he said in his mild-mannered way. With some embarrassment he told us how expensive it would be—about $1,350—with the huge cost principally accounted for by the $3.20 a gallon that aviation fuel goes for in Brazil. But we realized, did we not, that the money would be helping a good cause? It would go to the church.
That was understood, we said, but what of the sad reputation of the Santa Maria airstrip? Well, that was all right, the reverend said, because he had a Cessna floatplane. Could we be ready in half an hour? The trip would take maybe three hours and we'd have to get in before dark.
Almost certainly the reverend would have helped us anyway. But it turned out that the clerk had told him we were going fishing. And perhaps for the first time since he had arrived in Amazonia as a 23-year-old missionary, he had found somebody to talk to about fishing. Fly-fishing, that is. Diffidently, after he had stowed our rod tubes in the Cessna, he dug into his hip pocket and dragged out a glassine envelope that held a couple of salmon-size Mickey Finn streamers. "Tied these up myself," he said. "Best flies going for the big tucunarè. Take 'em with you."
It seemed a good moment to ask what a tucunarè was. "In Spanish, it's pavón," de Merchant said. "You probably know it as peacock bass." I did, but by reputation only as one of the finest freshwater game fish of South and Central America.
"See my fly rod in the holder, back of the cabin?" the reverend said. "That's my spare tire, that's my survival kit. Reckon if I ever crash in the jungle—manage to miss smashing into a tree trunk and just rip the wings off—I could grab that fly rod and maybe make it for a week or two."
Brennan said he didn't want to hear about that, but de Merchant was carried away by now. "What I do," he said, "as long as I'm not pressed for time, is stop en route to church—I plant churches out here, using that floatplane as a tool—and if I see one of those black holes in the jungle, I drop in and roll out a Mickey Finn or something else I've dreamed up on the vise. Best fish I ever got was 24 pounds, but I've had bass on that have towed the Cessna along. Slowly towed it along," he added with pastorly accuracy.
"Black holes?" Brennan asked. It did sound a little science-fictitious. "I'll show you," the reverend promised.
By then we had lifted out of Manaus. Against all the odds it looked as if we were going to meet Brodney and her party. It would also add a little spice to the encounter when she discovered that the Reverend de Merchant had been laying out fly lines in Amazonia for 16 years now. Below us was the vast expanse of the Rio Negro, incredibly, a mere tributary of the Amazon. "Here's a black hole," de Merchant said.
He banked the Cessna away from the river. Below us in thick jungle, looking as black as ink, was a little lake. "Just part of the Negro in the rainy season," he said, "but when the water drops the fish stay in it because it's deep and cool. And nobody can get at 'em. Except me! Wish I had time to take you boys in there, but we have to make Santa Maria before sundown."
We had left behind the last of the riverside shacks long before we hit the confluence of the Branco and the Negro. Soon we were flying over a tributary of the Branco, the Jauaperi. "Bad river," the reverend said. "Nobody takes a boat up there. That's where the Waimari Indians are. The ones who did the killings in '75. Wait a bit." He went down to little more than treetop height and flew away from the river for 10 minutes. "Look over to the left," he said.
A patch of jungle had been cleared and in the center was a great Indian roundhouse. "Nobody home," de Merchant said. "Whole tribe away somewhere." It was hard, in the cooled cabin of the Cessna, to appreciate that down there were some of the last people in the world holding out against the tide of petro-civilization, who had killed when they saw their hunting grounds threatened by construction projects such as the Trans-Amazonia Highway, who themselves would probably not survive this decade.
Now, though, the Branco itself gleamed silver ahead of us. We had been a long time in the air. "Twenty minutes to go," the reverend said, and finally, there in the fading light, was a group of shacks. It was Santa Maria, and as we landed all of its couple of hundred residents came out and stood in ankle-deep mud on the shore to greet us. There was no sign, though, of the Brodney group. "We'll have to stay here tonight," said the reverend as he secured the Cessna, "if we can."
There had been one small miracle that day already, when de Merchant and his floatplane had materialized. Now there was another. A man emerged from the crowd speaking the slightly pedantic, modulated English of an Indian, an Asian Indian. A political refugee, we learned later, from upriver, from Guyana, which has a substantial Asian Indian population. "Wait here, please," he said, "and I will see what I can do." He was back in five minutes, triumphant. "I have three hammocks for you," he said.
It occurred to both Brennan and me that we were going to have to gamble. We could call the trip off, head back to Manaus next morning with the reverend, or we could take the chance and wait in the settlement for Brodney. If she didn't show, we were in for a long vacation in Santa Maria and a long boat trip back—when the rains came.
That thought kept sleep away after we'd slung our hammocks in a bare wooden hut on stilts at the river's edge, but the animal kingdom would have ensured a broken night, anyway. It was our first taste of the jungle: the insane chatter of roosting parrots, the howler monkeys giving their celebrated imitation of a Cape Cod nor'easter, the frogs in divisional strength. Brennan claimed he heard a jaguar roar that night, but that was County Kilkenny imagination, I told him. With pelts fetching $60 on the illegal market, there would be few wildcats this close to Santa Maria.
Dawn was decision time. Back with the reverend, or stay put? Unsolicited, de Merchant made us an offer. There would be no extra charge for a 20-minute scout further up the Branco—a little better than 30 miles. For the moment we could postpone making our choice.
Santa Maria turned out again to see us off and we headed upstream. For 10 minutes, slightly more, there was no sign of a craft on the river. And then, way ahead, barely in sight, was a whitish patch. A cliff? A rock? A boat! Not them, couldn't be them, Brennan and I told one another, not daring to look too closely as the Cessna came in low to check what we had glimpsed. And then, no mistake, there were Brodney and someone else setting off in a dugout from a big white river boat. The reverend put the Cessna down, gently running it ashore on the sandbar. "Oh, uh, there you are, Kay," I said. Or something like that.
Not only was Brodney there, but so were Pete Gorinsky, his mother, Nelly, skipper Lauro Bamberg, his son Glenn and a stout crew of Brazilians recruited in Boa Vista. But things hadn't gone well for them, either. Instead of the three big dugout canoes they wanted to hire, the officials at Boa Vista had insisted they take an old Manaus-built barque pescero, a cumbersome Amazon commercial fishing boat with most of the deck space taken up by an enormous fish box that normally held an iced-down catch and left little room for people. As auxiliary craft there were one big dugout, a tiny canoe and an old aluminum skiff with two outboards. The outfitters in Boa Vista seemed to be more concerned with cornflakes than boats. Americans, the governor's men were convinced, could not function without cornflakes, and they had vainly scoured Boa Vista for breakfast cereal. It had taken Brodney and the Gorinskys a long time to convince the solicitous bureaucrats that this wasn't necessary. What with the great cornflakes chase and other delays, Brodney and company had been three days late leaving for the rendezvous at Santa Maria.
This meant that they had had to head straight down the Branco, with no time for scouting fish on the way. The lumbering old 45-footer had gone aground on most of the available sandbanks downstream of Caracarai and had finally got firmly stuck at the dry mouth of Lago dos Boto a couple of hours' traveling time from Santa Maria. When we spotted them from the Cessna, they had just managed to get it afloat again.
But another difficulty arose Brennan and I had planned to spend a couple of weeks with Kay's expedition. Now we found out that in three days the reverend was scheduled to leave Manaus for a month-long circuit of his outlying churches. As a fisherman, he responded to the disappointment on our faces. All right, he said, he'd postpone his trip and pick us up in seven days. It was the best he could do.
We said goodby. De Merchant walked off across the sandbar as reluctantly as a kid being dragged away early from a birthday party. "I'd love to go fishing with you." he said, reeling in the line he'd been using to get in a few moments of angling as his passengers had talked with Brodney. The Cessna took off, wagging its wings, and there was a sudden feeling of desolation, a realization of the niter remoteness of the place we now found ourselves in.
Nelly broke the spell. A brisk, tough old lady, whose father had been one of the pioneers in Guyana, which was then British Guiana, she's now virtually dispossessed in her native land. Until recently she had lived alone on what was left of the family ranch; her children were scattered—two living in Canada, one in London, one in St. Maarten, one still in Georgetown, Guyana and Pete, now of our party, in Costa Rica. "Time we made camp," she told us, in a sharp, pioneering sort of way.
So we headed downstream until we hit the mouth of the Tapera Grande, another tributary of the Branco. Nelly led a machete-brandishing party ashore to clear away a patch of jungle at the water's edge, an operation that moved slowly and circumspectly. First, with sticks, members of the party had to check the undergrowth and the holes in tree trunks for snakes. Then they hacked out a clearing, leaving strategically placed saplings for slinging hammocks and mosquito nets. Next came the burning of the undergrowth and the dead leaves: snakes, apparently, hate to cross ashy ground. The fire also killed the ticks. A timber fire had to be set to smolder damply, in spite of the oppressive heat, to keep away the cabouri, the tiny, viciously biting black flies that are universal along the river. It all took a long time.
"Why don't we just sleep on the boat?" Brennan wanted to know. The crewmen, he was gravely told, slept aboard the good ship Alziera Lima—they considered anybody who slept in the jungle crazy—and there was no room aboard for us.
By the time the camp was rigged, the sun was high, which meant it wouldn't be worth fishing until the last couple of hours of light. It was a good time to check the hammocks. Even in the jungle, siesta time comes along. Only one thing seemed to have been missing. "How about lunch?" Brennan asked plaintively. "We eat just once a day," Pete told him kindly. "When we get back in from fishing."
Pete is a tall man, a gemologist, as well as a passionate fly-fisher. He had first met Brodney on the Rupununi River in Guyana in 1972. They both wanted to catch an arapaima—reputed to be the world's largest freshwater fish—on fly. It reaches 600 pounds, but a 150-pounder would be a more likely catch. Pete, though not Brodney, had finally caught one—a mere 60- or 70-pounder, but an arapaima nonetheless. And on a fly.
He told us this as we swung in our broad and comfortable Brazilian hammocks that afternoon. "Stop mentioning the goddam arapaima," snapped Brodney from her corner.
"I don't know what an arapaima looks like." I said, pressing the subject.
"Like an arawana, only bigger and with a flatter head...and I never heard of it," Brodney said bitterly.
"Let's talk about arawana. This is an arawana trip."
"Now," said Pete, "there's a fish, one you have to stalk. Beautiful, greyhounding fish, hits a fly hard. We'll get lukunanni, too...."
I told Pete that the nomenclature was becoming confusing. "Tucunarè," he said, ignoring my confusion. "Pavón, peacock bass. We have two kinds. One with broad black stripes we call wacu. Another one with dapplings on its side, like a fawn. We call 'em deer lukes."
That first night, our first fishing night, we took the big dugout a few miles up the Itapera Grande. The signs were bad. No moving fish along the margins. Random casts stirred nothing. Though we'd given the Itapera Grande little enough time, it seemed that the plan was that we should head up the smaller Tapera Pequeno the next day.
In the jungle the first rule is to preserve the civilized amenities. One bathes in the river by flashlight, because only at night do the flies cease their patrols. In daylight it was disastrous not to wear long-sleeved shirts with slacks tucked into socks. "What about the stingrays?" Brennan asked.
"Which of the three venomous kinds do you mean?" Pete asked politely. "Don't worry. They'll not be in the running water where we'll swim."
Later, cleansed and unstung, we gathered on board the Alziera Lima. Glenn Bamberg had a great cooking pot full of a brown, meaty stew waiting for us. "Turtle," Brodney said, looking at Brennan and me expectantly. She was disappointed if she expected us to shudder and turn away. Starved since morning, we fell on it like jungle veterans.
When supper was over, we cringed a little at the hideous anthology of river dangers in which we were instructed. The snakes: fer-de-lance, bushmasters, coral. All venomous. Then the crushing snakes: anacondas, water boas. Next the crocodiles, more properly caimans.
"Thought they'd all been converted into handbags," Brennan said. By way of removing that thought from Brennan's brain, Pete swung his flashlight along the bank. Two, three, four pairs of eyes gleamed red in the beam. "Always remember," said Pete, "alligators reflect red, snakes white."
"Except the females," Nelly said.
"Don't fall in the water," Brodney said. "We also have electric eels, all sorts of fangy fish."
"And we have vampire fish," said Pete, gleaming wickedly at Brennan.
"You're putting us on," I told him.
"No," he said. "I've seen big peacock bass and catfish come floating dead down the river. Perfect, except they have no blood. The biara have been at them. The vampire fish. Oh, yes, and watch the porpoises. They don't kill you, they just bump you about. Then the piranhas get you." All that day we'd watched porpoises rolling, huge ones, more than a thousand miles from the sea. I'd always regarded them as friendly creatures.
"But they can't get you in camp," Brennan said.
"No," Pete said. "All you have to worry about in camp are the wild pigs, the snakes, the bad spiders, the ticks, the vampire bars. The jaguars won't hurt you. Probably."
"I may sit up a little tonight," Brennan said. "Where did we put the duty-free Scotch?"
"No, seriously," Pete said. "You just have to be watchful. You'll have a net. You'll be high off the ground. You'll have a flashlight in your hammock and a machete within reach. We aren't putting you on. Not that much. Amazonia defends itself fiercely."
Indeed, that night in what inevitably came to be called Fort Brennan, we slept soundly enough, and at first light we were piling tackle into the canoes and pushing up into the Tapera Pequeno.
Within half an hour we could see ahead of us something that fishermen pray for, clouds of screaming, wheeling terns plunging into shoals of baitfish. And as we got closer, we spotted the swirls of feeding predatory fish, great slashings of the water, and all of us were trembling with anticipation that the dreams which had brought us thousands of miles into Amazonia would be fulfilled.
We slid the canoes ashore. Fish were feeding everywhere. As soon as a fly or a lure hit the water, it was taken. "Tucunarè!" Pete was shouting. "Peacock bass everywhere!"
The frenzy lasted an hour. At the end of it, one or two of the biggest bass might have gone 15 pounds. There were other fish, too. Houris, silver pikelike fish with heavy scales and Halloween pumpkin fangs. Fish that some of the crewmen had never seen before.
Then, consistent with its infinite variety, Amazonia gave us another kind of fishing. As we paddled upstream on the Branco, gray shadows passed under our boat. More big bass. But this time there was no frenzy. The fish had to be stalked. We beached our boat and waded in with caution, fearing the stingrays. When the peacocks hit they bolted across the shallows. "Like bonefish!" I yelled at Brodney. "And they jump as well!" she yelled back.
And then, before noon, the action was over; the sun was beating down. In attempting to reduce the heat, you dip your hat in the river, fill it and then pour the water over your head. When that proves insufficient you get out of the canoe, kick the rays away and lie down in the shallows, with just your nose out of water. In the canoe again, your clothes take five minutes to dry.
We spent three days at Fort Brennan, in a self-indulgent orgy of catching the Tapera Pequeno's fish, of experiencing the splendors and miseries of the jungle. Among the splendors were the birds: hyacinth macaws, toucans, great tiger herons, bitterns painted like totem poles. And there was the wildness of the peacock bass.
The chief misery: the cabouri flies endlessly attacking. The sub-chief misery: the cuisine. The second night, the cauldron came up from below with the glassy and reproachful eyes of the bass we'd caught staring out from the oily broth. Amerindians, Brodney said firmly, consider the heads a delicacy. I released all my bass after that.
The nights were time for talk. Once, after we'd eaten what passed for the day's meal, I asked Brodney whether there weren't well-organized fish camps in Amazonia, with ice, beds, air conditioning, good food to come back to after the day's sport.
She made it very clear how much she despised" conventional fishing camps. "All that macho stuff," she said. "All that top rod nonsense. All that fishing for the guides. What a pampered aristocracy they are! I like to poop around in my own time, just trying things. All those guys who have to catch the biggest fish and then try to make the woman in camp! I like peace to fish, goddammit. People asking all the time if you're enjoying yourself. I just happen to have a sullen, glum expression. Doesn't mean I'm not enjoying myself. What I love down here is the freedom from all that."
We might have stayed even longer on the Tapera Pequeno, but Brodney's questing spirit wouldn't allow it. She'd had enough peacock bass, she said. She wanted arawana.
On the trip downstream Brodney and the Gorinskys had spotted what they thought was surefire arawana water, but now it was a long way upriver. The Lago du Amaua it's called, a lake system cut off in the dry season from the Branco, so that we would have to carry the canoes in. The area had a guardian, an old man known only as Tertuliani, who—though by lawyers' reckoning he owned none of Lago du Amaua—protected it fiercely from his house at its mouth, his guardianship being all the more effective for the reputation he had along the river as a condomblè priest, condomblè being a local variation of voodoo.
But it wasn't voodoo that diverted us from Lago du Amaua. Lauro Bamberg thought we might have trouble getting up there in the low water conditions. Temptingly, the chart showed another big lake system that was much nearer: the Lago du Mechede. After much heart searching, we decided to head there.
It was half a day's trip, and in the hottest part of the day we labored to set up what we called, before we abandoned it, Camp Despair. There were more stingrays in the water there than in any place we'd been, a lot of alligators, plenty of water snakes. But no fish. Or no fish of any consequence.
That night we made a hard decision. We had made a four-hour diversion from the main river to head up to Mechede. We would have to add that to the eight hours needed to reach Amaua from Fort Brennan and the time it would take to set up camp again. But it had to be done if we wanted arawana. Pete broke the news to the crew that a 5:30 a.m. start lay ahead.
Traveling upriver on a barque pescero in the dry season is no fun. You proceed in long zigzags, made necessary by the sandbars. Every couple of hours you inevitably run up on a bar, whereupon everybody gets out and hauls. Very occasionally there is a diversion. Once we came upon a trading boat that had been stuck fast for a week on its way to Manaus. It had cold beer in its refrigerator, and a good supply of bully beef and onions. The lunch that followed was the most luxurious meal we had on the river.
Once the Turtle Patrol, the government boat that protects the giant turtle of the Amazon region, caught up with us. Brennan and I had eaten turtle stew and turtle eggs before we had realized the illegality of doing so. A day or so before, Brodney had threatened, only half jokingly, to make a citizen's arrest if a particularly avid egger among the crew went collecting again. Good that she did: we had a clean boat when the law came alongside.
It was dark when we reached Amaua. By the light of a hurricane lamp we set up camp on a sandbar, rigging stakes to sling our hammocks in a kind of defensive square. Beyond the bar was Tertuliani's house. Pete went off to seek him out, to assure him we would only fish for sport, that his precious lake wouldn't be despoiled. He returned with good news. Tertuliani approved of our project. What's more, he would come with us next day and show us the best arawana spots. Better still, Tertuliani revealed that in the upper lake there were giant arapaima. They were a long way, maybe a day's travel away, though.
That night was the loudest and wildest we had tried to sleep through. The parrots and the monkeys were manic. At 2 a.m. the first rain of the trip hit us, mercifully lasting only a few minutes but enough to have everyone out of the hammocks. "Did you hear a coughing roar out there?" Brennan said to me nervously at one point. I told him to go to sleep.
But in the morning, leading across the sand to the water's edge were the freshly made great pug marks of a jaguar. "All right," I said to Brennan," you heard a coughing roar."
Tertuliani turned out to be a sundried, quizzical old gentleman who sat in his boat with his shotgun across his knee, should he be lucky enough to encounter peccary. He and Glenn Bamberg set off with us, in Tertuliani's boat, towing a small dugout behind the big one. We were running slow enough for trolling, and Nelly let out a plug. Big peacock bass started to hit right away, the striped kind, not the dappled. Eventually the channel had widened to a lagoon and close to the many fallen trees that were in the water we could see fish arrowing. "Arawanas!" Tertuliani announced with proprietary pride.
Sometimes other species would beat the arawanas to our flies. Tertuliani's lake was full of many kinds offish. But enough arawanas hit to justify all the praise that Brodney had given them. Pale gold ribbons of fish, five- or six-pounders that leapt high. It was all too soon before the sport, as it had done on the Tapera Pequeno, died with the climbing sun.
For Brennan and me, it was the last day. The reverend would be coming in for us next morning. The others, more than likely, would head for the upper lake Tertuliani had revealed on the chance, just the small chance, of finding an arapaima. The pair of us were bitten head to foot by cabouri flies, but at least we hadn't been eaten by anything else. Head upstream on the main river until you find us, we had told the reverend. That night, before we turned in, we laid out a bright red tarp on the sand. The boat, pulled into the bushes, wouldn't be all that conspicuous from the air. "I wonder if he'll come," said Brennan.
I asked, "If you couldn't trust a missionary, whom could you trust?" And indeed, in the morning, de Merchant was only a little late. He'd had to land, he said, alongside four boats before he found ours. Soon we were waggling our wings in salutation to Brodney and the others and heading back along the Branco. An hour later, the reverend said he was low on gas but that he could get some on the next river. He brought the Cessna down close to a single, big, new-looking house. "Stay in the plane and don't take any pictures," he said. "The Brazilians get a little sensitive about this area."
From the house, as soon as we were tied up, poured maybe 50 Indians—of the Western Hemisphere sort—all men, most in brilliantly colored, clearly new bathing trunks. They crowded onto the floats of the plane, and one of them, a smiling, handsome young man, began shoving bunches of green bananas through the open cabin window. We grimaced, gestured, smiled back. This type of dialogue went on for some minutes until the reverend returned with his fuel cans. "You'd better give them something in return," he said, "only remember, each one has to have exactly the same. Not money, though. It's useless to them. Do you have a spool of monofilament?"
We did, and that was fine. They could divide it up. We took off pretty fast after that, and Brennan said, "Handsome people. Some of your flock?"
"You've just met the Waimiri," de Merchant said, "The ones who cut up the soldiers and the missionaries. I didn't know they'd be there. They come into that Indian station maybe once or twice a year to trade skins. That's where they got the pants. They were in a pretty good mood today."
The reverend's news about the Waimiri kept Brennan quiet until dinnertime back at the Tropical Hotel. He had been talking for most of a week about the steak he was going to devour when he got back into town. Now we were showered, shaved and ready for it.
In the restaurant, Brennan waved the menu away. "I know what I want," he said. "The biggest steak in the house."
The waiter gave him one of those pitying looks. "I am sorry, sir," he said. "Tonight is Thursday night. The cold buffet only."
"Hell," said Brennan.
"Civilization," I said.