Isabel Allende on the Amazon

By Isabel Allende
March 25, 1997 11:30PM (UTC)
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a powerful dream led me to the Amazon. For three years I had been blocked, unable to write, with the feeling that the torrent of stories waiting to be told, which once had seemed inexhaustible, had dried up. Then one night I dreamed of four naked Indians emerging from the heart of South America carrying a large box, a gift for a conquistador. And as they crossed the jungles, rivers, mountains and villages, the box absorbed every sound, leaving the world in silence. The songs of the birds, the murmuring of the wind, human stories, all were swallowed up. I awakened with the conviction that I must go there to look for that voracious box, where perhaps I could find voices to nourish my inspiration. It took a year to realize that wondrous journey.

The Largest Forest In the World


How shall I describe the Amazon? It occupies 60 percent of the land mass of Brazil, an area larger than India, and extends into Venezuela, Colombia and Peru. From the airplane it is a vast green world. Below, on the ground, it is the kingdom of water: vapor, rain, rivers broad as oceans, sweat.

I approached the Amazon through Manaus. The city is far from the Atlantic coast, and appears on the map as solid jungle. I imagined a village on stilts, ruled over by an anachronistic baroque theater. I had been told that during the height of the rubber boom, the city was so prosperous that its ladies sent their clothing to Paris to be laundered, but probably such tales were only legend.


It was a surprise to land in an effervescent city of a million inhabitants, a free port, a center of a broad spectrum of businesses and trafficking, both legal and suspect. A wall of heat struck me in the face. The taxi took me along a highway bordered with luxuriant vegetation, then turned into twisting little streets where the homes of the poor and the middle class were democratically interspersed, both far from the neighborhoods of the wealthy, who live in luxurious fortresses under heavy guard.

The famous opera theater, remodeled, is still the major tourist attraction. During the last century, Europe's most famous opera stars traveled to Manaus to delight the rubber barons. The surrounding streets are paved with a mixture of stone and rubber to mute the wheels and horses' hooves during performances.

After seeing the theater, I had piracucú, the best freshwater fish in the world -- delicious, but horrifying in appearance -- served on a terrace facing the incredible river, which in times of flood stretched out like an ocean.


Into the Jungle

I stayed in Manaus only a couple of days, then set out on a boat with a powerful outboard motor. For an hour we traveled upstream at a suicidal pace, following the Rio Negro to Ariaú, an eco-hotel constructed in the treetops. The hotel consists of several towers connected by passageways open to monkeys, parrots, coatis and every insect known to man. Chicken wire everywhere prevents animals from coming in the rooms, especially the monkeys, which can wreak as much destruction as an elephant.


I took a walk through the thick undergrowth, led by a young caboclo -- a jungle dweller -- as guide. It seemed to me that we walked for an eternity, but afterward I realized that the walk had been ridiculously short. Finally I understood the meaning of the last line in a famous Latin American novel: "He was swallowed up by the jungle." Compasses are useless here, and one can wander in circles forever.

The jungle is never silent; you hear birds, the screeching of animals, stealthy footfalls. It smells of moss, of moistness, and sometimes you catch the waft of a sweet odor like rotted fruit. The heat is exhausting, but beneath the dark canopy of the trees you can at least breathe. Out on the river the sun beats down unmercifully, although as long as the boat is moving, there is a breeze.

To inexpert eyes, everything is uniformly green, but for the native, the jungle is a diverse and endlessly rich world. The guide pointed out vines that collect pure water to drink, bark that relieves fevers, leaves used to treat diabetes, resins that close wounds, the sap of a tree that cures a cough, rubber for affixing points on arrows. Hospitals and doctors are beyond the reach of the cabaclos, but they have a pharmacy in the forest's plants -- barely 10 percent of which have been identified. Some with poetic names are sold in the hotel: mulateiro, for beautiful skin; breuzinho, to improve memory and facilitate concentration during meditation; guaraná, to combat fatigue and hardness of the heart; macaranduba, for coughs, weakness, and lugubrious chest.


Life on the Water

another day we went to a native village that was in fact the habitat of a single extended family. These were Sater&eacute Maué Indians who had been evicted from their lands and forced to emigrate to the city, where they ended up in a favela, or slum, dying of hunger. The owner of the Ariaú Hotel had given them some land where they could return to living in harmony with their traditions. We arrived at their village late one afternoon by boat, at the hour of the mosquitoes.


We climbed a muddy hill to the clearing in the forest where, beneath a single palm roof, a bonfire blazed and a few hammocks were strung. One of the Indians spoke a little Portuguese, and he explained that they had planted manioc and soon they would have the necessary tools to process it. From the root they make flour, tapioca and bread -- even a liquor.

I walked over to the fire to see what was cooking, and found an alligator about a meter in length, quartered like a chicken, with claws, teeth, eyes and hide intact, sadly roasting. Two piranhas were on a hook, along with something that resembled a muskrat. Later, after I got a good look at the skin, I saw it was a porcupine. I tried everything: The alligator tasted like dried and reconstituted codfish, the piranhas like smoke, and the porcupine like petrified pig. The Indians were selling the modest crafts they make from seeds, sticks and feathers -- and a long, badly cured boa skin, brittle and pathetic.

The caboclos are Indians with European or African blood, a mixing of races that began during the 16th century. Some are so poor they don't use money; they live from fishing and a few crops, trading for fuel, coffee, sugar, flour, matches and other indispensable supplies. There are a few villages on land, but as the water rises more than 45 feet during the annual floods, submerging thousands of acres, people prefer to build houses on stilts or live in floating huts.


The dwellings are not divided into rooms, as the caboclos
do not share the white man's urge for privacy. They have few possessions, barely what is needed for survival. The incentive of acquisition is unknown; people fish or hunt for the day's needs, because anything more than that spoils. Sometimes, if they catch more than their daily quota, they keep the live fish in bamboo baskets in the water. They cannot understand the white man's greed or his drive to get everywhere quickly.

All communication and transportation is by river. News can take weeks to travel by word of mouth to the nearest radio, where it awaits its turn to be transmitted in the form of a telegram. As a result, the death of a family member may be learned a year after the fact, and a birth when the child is already walking. For the caboclos, time is measured in days by boat; life, in rainy seasons. What sense is there in rushing? Life, like the river, goes nowhere. The whole point is to keep afloat, paddling through an unchanging landscape.


A few months ago on the Alto Yavarí river, on the border between Peru and Brazil, explorers discovered a tribe that had never had any contact with white civilization. To record that first encounter airplanes and helicopters laden with television cameras filled the air, while on the ground the Indians, surprised in the midst of the Stone Age, readied their arrows.


I admit with a touch of embarrassment that I bought a blowgun, arrows and a pouch of powerful poison curare that came directly from that tribe. The blowgun is nearly 10 feet long and I was not allowed to take it on the plane, but I hope that someday it will arrive in the mail. The arrows and curare are on my desk as I write, but I need to find a safer place for them. It would be difficult to explain if someone pricked a finger on a curare-poisoned arrow.

In comic contrast, Avon Ladies have invaded the Amazon, women who go from door to door selling beauty products. I learned that one had recently been eaten by piranhas -- a direct contradiction to the soothing words of the guide when he invited us to swim in the Rio Negro.

The Negro is as smooth as a dark mirror when it is calm, frightening when storms erupt. In a glass, the water is a kind of amber color, like strong tea. It has a delicate, almost sweet flavor. One day we left before dawn to see the sun rising on a red horizon and to watch the frolicking of rosy dolphins. Dolphins are among the few fish that are not eaten; the flesh tastes terrible and the skin is unusable. The Indians, nonetheless, still harpoon them to rip out their eyes and genitals to make amulets for virility and fertility. In that same river where the water is as warm as soup and the dolphins frolic, where the previous afternoon we had watched some German tourists catch dozens of piranhas with a pole, a string and a bare hook, I had swum naked.

That night we went out in a canoe with a huge, battery-powered spotlight to look at the alligators. The light blinded the fish, and in their terror some leaped into the boat. We saw bats and huge butterflies flying in the darkness. The boatman, an adolescent caboclo who spoke a little English and laughed openly at our discomfort, would beam his light into the tree roots and when he spotted a pair of red eyes would jump into the water. We would hear a great thrashing and soon he would reemerge holding an alligator by the neck in his bare hand if it was small, with a cord around its muzzle if it was larger. We saw photographs of one they had caught the week before: It was longer than the boat. There are also more than 30 species of manta rays in those same waters, all very dangerous. And to think I had swum there!


After 10 days, we had -- reluctantly -- to leave. I did not find the four naked Indians with their magic box, but when I returned home, I carried some bit of that vast greenness within me, like a treasure. For the sake of discipline, and because of superstition, I begin all my books on Jan. 8. On Jan. 8, 1997, I finally ended the three-year block I had suffered and was able to write again. My dream of the jungle was not without its reward.

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende was born in Peru and raised in Chile, and currently resides in California. Best known for her fiction, she is the author of "The House of the Spirits," "The Infinite Plan," "Of Love and Shadows" and "Eva Luna," among other works.

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