Pink Bikes (from Brazilian Tequila)I am off to Porto Velho in Rondonia. Theodore Roosevelt called it the most hostile environment in the world. Hundred percent humidity meets jungle swamp. ‘A pleasure trip for masochists’, Diaz remarked, approvingly. He made me feel I was travelling on his behalf. But all I wanted was to see for myself the end of the trans-Brazilian railway line.
When I land at midnight, the tower clock reads forty degrees. The tarmac sticks to my heels. Customs welcomes me with red and black posters on ‘How to Prevent Cholera’. Corralled into baggage reclaim by high cages, passengers rattle the bars. Outside, the waiting hordes watch a muscleman movie on the giant screen. Soundtrack from hell.
Too hot to sweat, people dissolve into a tobacco fog.
Enormous crates of luggage from Manaus revolve on the carousel. Christo-wrapped elephants, I think. A man in designer mufti rushes up and embraces me, mistaking me for ‘Ernesto Cabal’. Potent aftershave lingers on his beard. False identification pleases. Ernesto Cabal, international conman?
Hotel Rica in the small hours. Air conditioning roars through the corridors. The rooms trap guests and wild life - windows sealed. I turn on TV. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The sound is drowned out by the AC. A mosquito ricochets from the screen on to my face. I decide not to swat (anti-malarial tablets, after all, are ninety five percent effective). Towards dawn I drop off and dream of Seamus Heaney, the poet (‘You should spend more time in Ireland’, he said, and I said, ‘How long?’).
There are lethal spores in the Madeira river. A boat crew drank them. Cholera arrives in Porto Velho. Rice-water stools fill the latrines. Fluids and tetracycline cure. Ignorance and neglect mean a sure death.
In the lobby at breakfast Dr Oscar Nilo introduces himself. A friend of Diaz. ‘Do you want to see our cholera control training?’ He takes me to the school. Barefoot nurses, issued with pink bikes, broad-brimmed hats and sun umbrellas, are sent down the river to teach the river dwellers water hygiene. ‘Simple advice for simple people’, says Dr Nilo.
The school is like a submarine in soup. Torpid insects fall to the ground in a constant drip. The training panel is Dr Nilo and a young priest. Amongst the adhoc recruits - barflies, drifters, young widows - is a bus driver who lost his licence when he went on strike. He was keen to talk to me. ‘We’re between the devil and the deep blue sea. Father says immorality causes illness. Doctor says illness causes immorality. But the caboclos know from experience that it’s a scoreless draw.’ Nilo smiles at the priest. Who blesses him. Then shakes his finger from side to side at me, laughing. ‘But you are the mystery man, the outside authority. You will say in Church Latin, ‘Boil everything that flows’. ‘Yes’, says the doctor’. ‘And I’ll translate you. The magic words are boil everything. Keep saying it.’
I’m embarrassed by my false importance, and make my excuses. On the hill above the bus station, I watch the drifters with their hessian bags and wild enthusiasms. Pop music wails through the barnlike space. A lugubrious American ballad, telling a dun tale of a domestic murder, relayed over and over… ‘Last night I heard the screaming,/ loud voices behind the wall./ Another sleepless night/ for me./ It won’t do no good to call/ the police,/ always come late/ if they come at all.’ ‘Nothing to be done, do nothing’. The amplified refrain is the voice of doom - basal with falsetto whimpers and a lone guitar.
Later that evening Oscar Nilo smiles wearily. ‘The programme is officially scrapped. Corrupcao. A scandal at the Ministry of Health. The bikes, hats and umbrellas were purchased from friends of the Minister of Health at retail rather than wholesale tarifs. A tidy backhander for Dr Michaelangelo Acras and his friends, who were too mean to pay off a journalist in the know. But we just continue on, as does the epidemic’.
I know about Dr Michaelangelo Acras. The forecourt of Hotel Cuatro Rodas, on the stop-over at Santarem. The Minister emerging from a stretch limo as I got out of a battered VW, the only cab I could find when my bus broke down outside a shantytown. The driver exults. ‘That’s Michaelangelo.’ And gets out to watch, not unaware of the disapproval of the Ministerial entourage and Cuatro Rodas reception.
Acras’s diminutive, white-suited form disappears into the lobby. The smile fixed, body language furtive. A huddle of gap-toothed porters and awed American tourists absorb him. ‘Get this scum out of my way’, the Minister snarls. But recovers his political poise when he notices a camcorder focused on him and turns to a bellboy carrying his bags.
‘And what is your name?’
‘Titan da Silva, sir.’
‘My wife is about to become a mother. An heir to the Acras dynasty. I will call him Titan. A good name. A name of the people.’
He sweeps into the lift before Titan can ask, ‘What if it’s a girl?’
Oscar sighs. ‘Politics, as usual, take precedence over health. When we were driving back from a visit to some river families last evening, negotiating the potholes in the main street there was a sharp report, like the crack of a whip. I thought a puncture. But the driver drives on, picking up speed.’
He shows me a bullet mark on the side-wing. ‘Intended only to frighten us.’ Oscar seems amused. I take out my camera. ‘No. Don’t. Photographs are evidence. In Brazil evidence is dangerous.’ Quietly adding, ‘You know, when the explorer Rondon met up with a tribe of Indians on the banks of the Madeira, the Nhambis, they told him, ‘Be killed if you must, but why fight?’ Let things take their course.’ He bundles me back into the hotel, laughing.
News of the epidemic follows me back to the coast. The boat crew carrying the cholera are cult figures. Hospital bulletins pole-vault into headlines. Cordels celebrate their survival. In cavern shrines votive offerings to their spiritual health are multiplying. Politicians court their relatives. Chat show hosts kiss them on both cheeks. A problem subsumed into the culture, solved by dissolving. The wife of the cook is as popular as the star of a telenovela, the personification of the epidemic. Released from hospital, she tells the press, ‘I will ride my bicycle to forget the experience’. The bike, of course, is pink.