I was dreaming that I was cruising, rather majestically, down the Yangtze, the sun was beating down on me and the beer was, by Chinese standards agreeably cold, when a sudden explosion brought me back to the land of the living.
It was 6am and I was somewhere between Fortaleza and Belem, this thought alone seemed to cover the whole range of geographical possibilities. The driver slammed on the air brakes and bought the shiny yellow bus to a grinding halt. The six of us who made up the entire contingent of passengers sleepily followed the driver off the bus and into the early morning mist.
We were, quite honestly, in the middle of nowhere. The road stretched behind and in front of me into oblivion. The early morning mist was just beginning to be burnt off by the first rays of the sun and only the grumbles and mutterings of the driver disturbed this primeval calm.
Even from my limited experience with cars I could see that the tire was indeed shredded and quite beyond repair. So, we all piled back into the bus and let the driver drive another 20kms to test this hypothesis extensively. Indeed, it was as I had guessed, shredded (large bits of rubber strewn across the highway seemed a bit of a give-away for me) and after a bone-grinding hour we once more came to a halt.
As our driver began to dig around in the cabin for the jack and spanners he complained bitterly to me about having driven coaches for 25 years and that this was the first time this had ever happened. I didn’t tell him this kind of thing happens reasonably often to me for fear of walking the rest of the way and I let him have his moan.
I left the driver and the other passengers fiddling with the jack and getting covered in oil and mud from the spare tyre whilst I walked back down the road to take some pictures. As I snapped away I imagined myself to be some heroic figure, alone in the Brazilian rain forest, armed only with my trusty penknife and my wits. I imagined the stories I could tell when I got back to Europe, about naked Indian women, exotic fruits, dangerous trips to forbidden frontiers in dugout canoes and the wild animals I had seen. I liked the ideal of naked Indian women especially.
All this embellishing of my personality swiftly ended when a snake slithered out of the undergrowth and across the road. I ran screaming back to the bus, much to the amusement of the driver, who was now covered in oil, and complaining about his new white shirt. So much for the brave travel writer.
The Amazon. Even the word has a romantic sound to it. It is perhaps one of the most evocative words in the English Language (after, of course, naked Indian women). It is an area that everyone seems to have an opinion about, whilst few people can claim first hand knowledge. I had been into the jungle just once before, a few years ago when I took a gloriously drunken boat ride out of Manaus. I was returning this time for other reasons, and I thought I should at least try and make a token effort of getting to the heart of the enigmatic area.
When we think of the Amazon we normally think of vast tracts of virgin forest, and a lack of development. This is not always the case and there is evidence that the Amazon basin had been densely populated when the Europeans arrived. Scientists now believe that the Indians had learnt not only how to survive in the hostile environment but how to cultivate it. Charles Clement, researcher at the government’s Amazon research institute, INPA, says the Indians domesticated a large number of wild plants (one of them was the pineapple) to make them more productive. But the arrival of the Europeans led to the ruin of the Indians, and the rainforest reverted to wild.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.