We left Santarém on the riverboat ‘Cisna Branca’, a slightly smaller craft than the ‘Liberty Star’. Again we booked a fantastically small cabin that somewhat resembled a windowless prison cell. The toilet only sprayed half the amount of water across the floor as our toilet on the larger vessel.
And again we met our friend Pieter-Jan, the friendly, funny Belgian who’d accompanied us on our Fordlandia mission. Within minutes of boarding he was grinning ear to ear, having set up his hammock next to an attractive Russian.
The boat had come from Belém, and over that three day journey various cliques had formed. We joined the one most resembling gringos, a table full of Spanish speaking passengers from Spain and Mexico. An itinerant puppeteer from Seville caught us up to speed on the activities of the boat’s prostitute, the priest who had disembarked at Santarém, and an insane Costa Rican prone to long, loud lectures.
Pablo, the puppeteer, was a magnetic personality who claimed to be exhausted by cycling around South America with no money, giving puppet shows. He showed no signs of exhaustion though as he joked and teased the other passengers, prodding them into outbursts of laughter.
One evening as we sat around a plastic table, watching the landscape roll past, the insane Costa Rican appeared, his arms laden with broken gadgets. He dumped them in front of the puppeteer, declaring they were gifts for him and his friends. Pablo looked at us and started to distribute the heavy, useless items, the Costa Rican stopped him. Not these people! He shouted in Spanish, the puppets!
For the rest of the evening Pablo created games in which the loser and or winner would receive either a weak, oversized flashlight, with “friend” stenciled on the side, or a giant broken Swiss Army knife, half its functions useless as it was wrapped with packing tape. As the games went on, other passengers were dragged in and flummoxed when awarded unwieldy gifts for no apparent reason.
I took a trip to the bar to refresh everyone’s drinks, the beer aboard the Cisna Branca was incredibly cheap. A Brazilian from Salvador, his eyes red and runny from drink was leaning heavily against the wall, and began a monologue about friendship when I appeared. He insisted on buying my drinks, which I politely refused. I knew where this game led, I’d had my share of half understood conversations with drunks aboard the Liberty Star. It ended with us as great friends, brothers really, and brothers buy brothers whiskey. I tried to sidestep, I tried to tell him I didn’t speak Portuguese. Eventually I wormed my way back to the table, but eventually my new friend joined us, and began a long lecture about love and friendship.
With me and Magda cornered, nodding uncomprehending as he became sad, then slightly belligerent, our new friends gradually called it a night. One by one they excused themselves, until only Pieter was left to try and derail the Brazilian’s increasingly aggressive train of thought.
Then Pieter, our last translator, left too. Without a word.
I told Magda she should try to leave as well, I’d plead ignorance and tell him I in all honesty I simply couldn’t understand, but he was sitting inches from her, and seemed insistent she understand his point. He began saying something about the US, how it should do more to help Haiti (Haiti?). How we could come to his country, but he couldn’t come to ours. We wasn’t professing his undying friendship anymore, and his look was getting mean.
Out of the darkness Pieter reappeared, three glasses of water in his hand. Cheerful as always, he offered one to our captor and artfully steered the ‘conversation’ towards himself. Soon he was receiving the full force of our friend’s attentions, and he nodded to us to slip away.
Back at our cabin, I hatched a plan to come to Pieter’s rescue. I came back outside to find them gone. It turned out the Brazilian had asked if Pieter was tired. He’d said yes, and that was it. It seems the easiest way to end a conversation is if you speak the language.
When we reached Manaus, the cliques broke up and scattered on the docks. We said warm goodbyes to Pieter who planned on disappearing into the jungle straight away. We struggled with our bags, dragging them down ship ladders and across the gangplank, onto the floating docks of Manaus.