My Visit to a Cholera Epidemic
(from Brazilian Tequila, 2008)
I’m the only passenger on the rickety bus to Manacapuru. The driver stops at every passing settlement with a cafe for a beer, and chat with the loungers. Sole traveler diplomacy requires me to join them, which means I ride the bumps on the road with a belly blurping fizz. I achieve Hotel Rica in the small hours. Air conditioning roars through the corridors. The sealed windows in my room trap guests, and wild life. I turn on the television to drown out the rackety fan, and a mosquito ricochet from the screen onto my face. I’m too exhausted to chase and swat (anti-malarial tablets, after all, are ninety five percent effective). I find myself watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, during which I drop off and dream of the poet Seamus Heaney (who I only met on the page). ‘You should spend more time in Ireland’, he said, and I said, ‘How long?’.
A note at the desk precedes me. Pedrinho (my mentor and travel guide) wants me to know that ‘an important friend Dr Oscar Nilo will present himself at breakfast. I clean myself up as best I can, putting on my kaki explorer suit (General Rondon without the hard hat). Dr Nilo doesn’t waste time. Standing in the lobby, he says ‘I’m Health here’ (in English) and explains, ‘Cholera has arrived in Manacapuru. The first known epidemic in Brazil for a decade. We were aware of vibrio spores in the Amazon. Then a boat crew, ignoring our warnings, drank water from a tributary a few weeks ago. I only needed to see their latrine to diagnose it. Full of rice-water stools. As you know, re-hydration and tetracycline can cure it. But the caboclos refuse the treatment. Some Christian Scientist cult has a grip on the water-board. And as you know that means certain death for half of the coleraistas. So, the first resort is also the last resort to contain the epidemic’.
Dr Nilo’s outline of the preventative programme is more a briefing, and I gradually realise Pedrinho has committed me to the cholera-control training camp in Manacapuru. I’m his ‘big wig’ from London. There to give it global clout. Dr Nilo sweeps me into the school-room where the courses take place. Barefoot nurses, issued with pink bikes, broad-brimmed hats and sun umbrellas, are sent down the river to teach the river people water hygiene. ‘Simple advice for simple folk’, says Dr Nilo in sing-song.
The school has been closed for the training. The teachers are Dr Nilo and a young priest. The room is strangely cold. Outside the temperature is in the forties, torpid insects falling from the skies in a constant drip, but newly installed ventilator fans have created an artic storm. I could do with an overcoat.
The only available bare-footers in Manacapuru are people without work - young widows predominate, but there is a fair share of barflies, migrants, and willing boys. I’m introduced to them as the Oxfam observer, which is nearly true (before leaving London, I mentioned my trip to Brazil to an Oxfam friend, and he said watch out for future projects).
A bus driver who lost his job when he went on strike is keen to talk. ‘We’re between the devil and the deep blue sea. Father says immorality causes illness. Doctor says illness causes immorality. But the poor river-folk here know from experience that it’s a scoreless draw.’ Dr Nilo smiles at the priest. Who blesses him. Then shakes his finger from side to side at me, laughing. ‘But you’re the moral arbiter here, the higher authority. You’ll say in Church Latin, ‘Boil everything that flows’. ‘Yes’, says the doctor’. ‘And I’ll translate it into Indian patois. The magic words are ‘Boil everything’. Keep saying it.’
Someone from the Government is coming to Manacapuru later in the day, and I am to be introduced. Embarrassed by my assumed importance, I make my excuses. I need to think about this. On the hill above the bus station, I watch the drifters with their Hessian sacks and wild enthusiasms, running around, playing some game with mangoes and beer bottles. Amplified Pop music wails through the barn like space. It’s a lugubrious American ballad telling a dun tale about eves-dropping on a domestic murder. You hear loud voices and screaming ‘behind the wall’, and decide not to call the police. They’re useless. Nothing to be done, do nothing is the refrain.
Later that evening Dr Nilo smiles wearily at me, ‘Sorry, the programme has just been officially put on hold. The government visitor was apologetic. Corruption’ (he uses the English word). ‘A scandal at the Ministry of Health. The bikes, hats and umbrellas, and the ventilation fans, were purchased from friends of the Minister at retail rather than wholesale prices. A tidy backhander for Dr Michelangelo Acras, who was too arrogant to pay off a journalist in the know. But we just continue on, as does the epidemic’.
I know of Dr Michelangelo Acras. On a stop-over at Santarem on my cultural trip I thought I ought to see the town. I had just arrived back in the forecourt of Hotel Cuatro Rodas in a battered Volkswagen, the only cab I could find when the tourist bus broke down outside a favela, and witnessed, the Minister emerged from a stretch limo, diminutive, white-suited. The driver exulted. ‘That’s Michelangelo’, and got out to watch, not unaware of the disapproval of the Ministerial entourage. I entered the lobby area as the same time as Acras. His fixed smile remained in place when his darting progression was held up by a huddle of gap-toothed porters and awed American tourists, but, ‘Get this scum out of my way’, was evident in his body-language. However, he recovered his political poise on noticing a camcorder focused on him, and turned 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?’
The anecdote puts me on first name terms. Oscar Nilo sighs. ‘My dear Gus, politics, as usual, takes precedence. 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 think it is a puncture. But our driver drives on, picking up speed.’
Oscar shows me a bullet mark on the side-wing (‘Intended only to frighten us’). He seems amused. I take out my camera. ‘No, Gus, please. Don’t. Photographs are evidence. In Brazil evidence is dangerous.’ Quietly adding, ‘You know, when the explorer Rondon met up with the Nambikwara tribe on the banks of the Madeira, they were appeasing, ‘Be killed if you must, but why fight?’ In other words, let things take their course.’ Still, I get my photo. The ex-bus-driver grabbed my camera and caught me posed, like Doubting Thomas with his finger on the wound. Oscar bundles me back into the hotel, laughing, ‘only for personal use’.
News of the epidemic follows me back to the coast. Hospital bulletins on the boat crew pole-vault into headlines. The deaths make sure of that. A cordel appears in the markets celebrating the survivors who found spiritual solutions to the problem. The graphic wood-cut, depicting their Calvary, includes a toilet with a cross over it. ‘It isn’t meant to be funny’, Pedrinho says. ‘The coleraistas have become cult figures. Saints of health. No doubt in chapel shrines votive offerings to them are multiplying’
The religious cult was shown to be linked to an American Evangelist chain. But nobody is talking to Dr Oscar Nilo. Tupy, the Department of Health spokesman, is on the job, obfuscating the facts as no doubt the epidemic spreads. Local politicians court their families, and are seen on television dangling babies. A scandal broke out when one of the infants was found to come from central casting. Chat show hosts kiss the celebrity survivors on both cheeks.
As there is something that can be done, and doing nothing is criminal negligence, it’s a corrupt form of vara, driven by the opportunism of the media, owned by a Presidential candidate, Collor. A problem subsumed into the culture, solved by dissolving. The pretty widow of the boat’s cook is as popular as the star of a telenovela. On her release from hospital, she tells the press, ‘I will ride my bicycle to forget the experience’. The bike, of course, is pink.
On the phone to Pedrinho, my indignation is po-faced, ‘Surely something can be done about the all-pervading corruption?’ He demurs. ‘It’s endemic like the cholera. And you can’t stop people crapping in the river.’
‘But you can stop them drinking the water’.
‘And then they will die of thirst’. He laughs the laugh of the Great Brazilian Hopelessness.
Augustus Young 2003 (revised 2021)