"Well, we´re going to be on this boat for seventeen days; we´d better make the most of it," joked Steve, a darker-skinned Englishman with big feet and a big smile. He and I were passengers on a five-day boat trip up the Amazon River (the point of which was transportation, not tourism, because little could be seen of the forest from a boat). It was hours after the boat was supposed to have left port in Belém, and there seemed to be no end in sight to the bags of onions being loaded on the cargo deck.
We sat on the top deck with the other late-twentie´s Englishmen: Steve´s girlfriend, Amanda, a hazy blue-eyed hair-dresser with pig-tails shaped like ham-hocks; Barry, a clever-witted, round-featured guy; and his wife, Allison, an intelligent and well-read, short, glasses-wearing blonde.
We played "meixe-meixe," a card game which had been separately forced upon us by an eccentric hotel-owner and trophy-carrying meixe-meixe champion, Tia Helena. The object of the game was to play similar-card sets or "meixe-meixe" (move-move) existing sets so that you could slip in cards until you went out. Alternatively, you could just cheat.
Barry chose the latter. With each card played rightly, he subtly dropped a card or two on the table. Sometimes, he´d whisper to Allison what he´d done, getting her giggling madly. Five minutes later, someone would notice a three of spades and jack of hearts neatly tucked beneath the king of diamonds. Barry responded by dropping his jaw and shooting open his eyes, giving a pale-faced look so shocked and innocent you would´ve thought he´d been in Argentina when the cheating occurred. We forced the cards back in his hand when we caught him, but Barry´s methods could´ve given Tia Helena a run for her trophy.
By the time we´d meixe-meixed our last, the boat was moving ... in circles. I´m no navagatronomer, but it seemed an odd route to take. Five hours after departure time, Belém´s lights were well in view.
"Good night," said Steve. And, ominously, "We´ve still got seventeen days aboard this ship."
To reach my bed, a hammock slung on the second deck, I waded through an overwhelming web of Brazilians and their hammocks. I lofted myself in and sunk down to rest two or three inches above my neighbors below. The intimate setting made for close contact, like running into people, tripping over hammocks, and stepping on sleepers. In an area the size of five bowling lanes or a quarter of a futebol field or three-fourteenths of a baseball diamond or 521 meixe-meixe tables, there were fifty people sleeping, in addition to four bathrooms, four showers, a dining table, and nine playing cards Barry had hidden.
At the dining table, we were served rice, noodles, farinha (small corn grains), and meat and/or beans for every meal. We slid plates and silverware selflessly down the length of the table until everyone had his, and then we fought for death over the foods.
"What are you in for?" Steve asked me at lunch.
The afternoons were best spent gazing about the wide, brown river. Cruising the 1500 kilometers to Manaus, capital of the Amazon, we passed about every green thing you could imagine. We saw: short, afro-shaped trees with yellow flowers; yellow-green palms whose leafs were made of spiky leaflets; white trees whose tops flared out like claws ending in poplar leafs; dense wildernesses of hundred-foot trees; equally wild islands; green-topped, riverside cliffs; distant, forested mountains; marshy fields; lily-pads; and sea-grass. Everything but little green men.
The locals, though were practically alien to us. They lived in solitary, infrequent, stilted shacks. They owned wooden boats and little else.
The greatest respect I owed them was for their hitchhiking abilities. As our boat motored past, the river-dwellers paddled alongside. One paddler, usually a little boy, would make a great leap for our boat. They roped on in time to receive a free, comfortable, up-river ride during which they bailed water constantly.
The sighted animals, unfortunately, were even more infrequent than the people. The shark-like fins of gray and pink dolphins broke the water. White egrets stood in the grass. A black-horned, brown-backed rhinocerous beetle even hitched with us. I believe the three-inch beetle deserved the ride, as he lived with the constant burden that Mother Nature had stuck a plunger to his face.
The nights were interesting, too, even if a little boring. Thunder flashed in the distance, though the sky above was almost always starry. Meanwhile, the Englishmen and I crawled through countless hours of meixe-meixe, yahtzee, and Brazil´s most heated game, dominoes.
We got a new stimulus on our third night when our (already in-question) captain ran into shore. The motor may have broken before-hand, so perhaps I´m not being fair, but the fact of hte matter is the cptain willingly steered us near some tall, dark trees where any one of us would´ve made a meaty black panther´s hot dog asleep in our hammocks.
At any rate, the motor was broken. Before the black panthers or plunger beetles could attack, we were tugged to small-town Almeirim. This was where the greatness of an unstressed country came out. We were set back for days, possibly seventeen, but did anyone care? Except for one grouchy guy, no. We travellers and the Brazilians walked through the town´s green hills, mingled with the locals, ate popsicles, swam in the river´s rapid current, and took thirty-foot dives off the boat´s top deck. Who was in a hurry?
It was a great day to live.
During the Almeirim night, Steve, Barry, and I weren´t at-first so successful in finding something to entertain ourselves.
"There must be more than three games," I said.
Suddenly, I got an idea. I drew a small, square girl and passed the paper to Barry. "Your turn."
Barry passed. Steve drew a bike. Me - mountain. Barry - boat. Steve - flower.
We continued on, and it became very fun. No rules or understanding had been established, but we offered commentary on every turn.
"Aw, I see what you´re doing now," Barry would say contemplatively as I drew. "Very nice. Oh, that´s brilliant!"
Barry took his turn. Steve remarked, "I believe he´s using the Merlowe maneuver," just making up a name. Barry drew a fried breakfast. Steve followed with a boot. Me - a sock. Barry - a foot.
"I think he´s pulled an Elwidge!" I said.
Allison looked on, flabbergasted.
We let an on-looker play, and his turn was horrible. The young Brazilian drew something that resembled two unfinished hexagonal gems. He motioned that they were meant to fit together. We started jeering him, and he panicked and started drawing on his hand. We practically had to pull the pen from him. He was banished from the game.
Me - treasure map. Barry - a pirate. Steve paused, saying he still didn´t understand the Brazilian´s drawing. Barry added that he didn´t understand mine.
"Then why did you draw a pirate!?" Steve and I yelled.
Steve - vulture. Me - butterfly. Barry began his turn.
"That´s either a kettle or a tank." I looked on.
"Or a wagon," said Steve.
"Or something completely different."
Allison asked insistently what we were doing.
"I have no idea what the hell I´m doing," said Barry, summing up the game.
Allison briefly joined in and made a hot dog.
"Well," I said, "you´re at least in fourth place." I pointed to the Brazilian and his picture, and we all had another good laugh at his expense.
The game ended in Merlowe-like fashion. Steve made a fire-breathing chili dog. I made a fridge. Barry made a guy in his night-shirt holding a candle.
In the end, there was only one thing to do. If the boot-after-the-fried breakfast move didn´t speak for itself, the fire-breathing chili dog did. We granted Steve a proud victory.
Though we still hadn´t left Belém´s state yet, the hammock-lazing, noodle-grazing, jungle-dazing, picture-razing, plunger-facing, river-chasing ways of the Brazilian North were growing on us. Even in we never got to Manaus, it was a pretty good life.
To be continued ...