The Turning of the Worm
(from Brazilian Tequila, Matador 2017)
Porto Velho, Rondonia. I had hoped to find General Rondon and Theodore Roosevelt’s River of Doubt, but had to be content with the terminus of the Amazonian railway line. A dirty border town, the climate is killing. Stagnant heat night and day. Stale air. The humidity is one hundred percent. No point in wiping off sweat. Hair a Medusa of prickles. Veins stand out. Washed shirts don’t dry.
The size and cost of the hotels takes me aback. Hilton-style five- stars. Even modest two-stars are Rio prices. The shops in the main street – not much better than a dirt track - are mostly gold exchanges and dental offices. The gold rush is over. I assume prospectors have their fillings removed, and pop in next door to sell them.
I lunch in a curbside café. Flies drop dead from the heat into the rice and beans, part of the nutrition. The local newspaper reports the rate of homicides in the town like the Dow Jones index. Last week it averaged 2 a day per 100,000 people. I calculate that’s almost two thousand a year. The population of a quarter of a million must be falling fast. Maybe it was a bad week. But it’s ten times the highest rate in the world (other than a war-zone). Three of the five killings today were with knives. It dawns on me that Porto Velho, bordering with Bolivia and Columbia, is witnessing the alchemy of gold into cocaine culture. Guns and gold. Knives and drugs. But, I suppose, once the cartels get better organised their wars will be more discrete. At present it’s a free-for-all.
Drunken migrant workers in soiled white suits smell dollars and eye me furtively. Skin black from foraging in the opencast mines in the sun. When they begin to pester me the cafẽ owner drives them off with a baseball bat. He tells me that the common currency amongst disenchanted gold prospectors is bus tickets to the South. ‘The smart ones barter wives and children to get out. Unless they start talking to themselves and get religion, the rump stomp around in high-heeled boots and flared trousers and become freelance lumberjacks, drug couriers, pimps, private army fodder, Indian killers. There is no escape except by shooting your way out, keeping the last bullet for yourself.’ Could he be exaggerating, I ask? He smiles the smile, ‘If I were you I wouldn’t wait to find out’. I ask him why he stays on in Porto Velho? ‘The money is good’.
It occurs to me that my General Rondon-style explorer suit stands out as a target, and the plane out is not till tomorrow. But I think of Theodore Roosevelt. ‘Show no fear. Face down the dog’. I swagger down to the Madeira river. Trucks half-sunk in its grimy waters are being washed down. Turbaned women up to their waists scrub suds out of clothes. Rats rut in the beach rubbish. A lone food stall, the vestige of a marina, manned by a large black man sitting on a rocking chair with his back to the counter. When I ask for cachaca, he does not move. Merely flicks his fingers. An Indian boy appears. Neatly pours a red scorpion. Takes the money to his boss who is studying me in a mirror above the bottles with amused contempt. I toss the drink down in one go and reorder another. He patronises me with a little backhanded wave.
The end of the line is commemorated by a junkyard, a rickety shack and a newly built Evangelical church. In the yard redundant rolling stock, elephantine rust-green relics of steam locomotion. The shack is the Rondon museum, dedicated to Indian culture. Honest scholarship gone to rack and ruin. The door is open. Inside a glass case of snakes. Amongst them is a Sucuri, a crocodile predator capable of assimilating a full-grown curator (there isn’t one around). Its gorgeous skin would grace a modern art gallery. I see a case of shrunken heads. And some artifacts scattered on a table. I pocket a pipe with a halved nut as the bowl, a passion-fruit stemmed with a red feather, and enter the church to search out someone to pay. It is bedecked with Christmas decorations, and a crib hangs from the corrugated roof. But the faithful are not in evidence, or my hypothetical curator. I’ll give some dollars to the next Indian I meet.
In this ex-jungle insect repellent is useless. Fierce flies feast on the neck. I step in a fetid ochre puddle. There hasn’t been any rain. Could it be blood? I dismiss the thought. It would have to be fresh, and there are no dead or wounded bodies lying around. But I don’t want to return to my air-conditioned hotel with its lounge-lizard ambience, very possibly the most dangerous place in town for me. If I stay much longer I fear more for my health than my life. What I imbibed for survival would make me an alcoholic anywhere else. I return to the café, drink a suco, and check my plane-ticket. Tomorrow and tomorrow.
I ask the café owner about the River of Doubt, and discovered it is now called Rio Roosevelt, and very much on the map. This tributary of the Amazon used to attract rich American tourists on the Rain-forest run, ‘until several died of some fever, or were eaten by the Indians’. He isn’t quite sure, but wouldn’t be recommending it on foot. It would take a week. I didn’t feel burdened with his discouragement. It was a relief.
At the airport custom guards discovered ‘irregularities’ in my papers (a sweat-smudged date of birth). I know what to do as Pedrinho’s alter ego. Dollars change hands and all is well. I’m learning on the hoof the ways of jeito, getting by with guile.
The thrill of achieving a bribe has worn off. ‘Pay up and don’t overestimate what’s needed, like most Europeans’, Pedrinho councils. ‘The art in the transaction is in the nonchalance. Understanding is swift, acceptance casual. The same impassive official - standard moustache, potbelly buttoned in - receives his rightful payoff. Notes disappear up his nose, and he waves you on. Nobody is made seriously rich. Rather than resenting sliding good money into a greasy palm, regard it as a tip. The acceptable amount is what’s in the left-hand pocket, ready to roll.’ Reasonable enough, but funds dwindle, and with it fears of real corruption.
I’m a naive European with ethical notions of what should or should not be in South America. ‘Brazil is a poor country. Rich tourists must pay their way’. I hear this often enough. But what about the Brazilian rich? The five percent. Invisible, except for their private jets complicating the airspace. Then there’s the doing-very-nicely middle-class. Fifteen percent. They travel lightly like Pedrinho. Laugh at petty officials, puta, and tourists who fall for their idle threats. ‘Don’t laugh too loudly’, I want to say to him, ‘or I will challenge you to visit my homeland. Alien moral stances work two ways. You would struggle’. Of course, I don’t.
Ps Carlos Ghosn, the billionaire boss of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, currently under investigation for corruption, is a son of Porto Velho.