Amazon Cruise (became an environmental pilgrimage)

By Mark Stachiew

The sight of a disposable diaper being tossed into the muddy waters of the Amazon River woke me from my daydreams.

For six days, I sailed 1,500 kilometres up the world's second longest river on a sort of ecological pilgrimage. Like most people, I'm concerned about the environment, but I wouldn't call myself a rabid tree-hugger. The river and its surrounding rain forest have become important symbols for the environmental movement. I spent my holidays there because I wanted to see what all the fuss is about. Watching someone desecrate the river by chucking a Huggy into it showed me the environmentalists are in for a tough fight.

The voyage was hardly a cruise on the Love Boat. It was more like a trip into Conrad's Heart of Darkness. About 200 of us were jammed into a small river boat, similar in size to the S.S. Minnow from Gilligan's Island. Nice for a day trip, but kind of small for a week.

We slept in hammocks. Every square centimetre of space was occupied by someone in a hammock. They were attached to pipes and beams and criss-crossed the upper and lower decks like a psychedelic spider web.

No space was wasted on that little boat. If a family of Brazilians wasn't camped out in a given space then it was filled with cargo being shipped upriver. There were crates of fruits and vegetables, car parts, refrigerators - all sorts of goods destined for the Amazonian interior. I slept on the bottom deck beside a crate of fuzzy, yellow chicks whose plaintive peeping was drowned out by the boat's belching engine.

For those who don't like sleeping in the open and being kicked in the head by someone in a neighboring hammock, the boat had a handful of private cabins. These cost considerably more, and were about as comfortable to sleep in as a microwave oven since they are about the same size and their metal walls trap in the hot, humid tropical air.

Meals were an ordeal. The hammocks were brushed aside and two small tables were set up. They could only seat about 50 people so we ate in shifts. Elbow to elbow we shared our meals which were invariably boiled beef or chicken with rice and spaghetti. All of this was topped with manioc flour which has the taste and consistency of crushed gravel.

But meals were a good at breaking the tedium of life on the river. It was a time to talk with fellow travellers. Even though I could barely string a sentence together in Portuguese, I would ask them what they thought about the Amazon and how the rest of the world is telling them it has to be saved.

Tourists from the big cities in the south like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo were concerned about the region's future and spouted green slogans typically heard in North America. The Caboclos, those who lived on the river and depended on it for their livelihoods, weren't as convinced. They didn't seem to think the forest was in any immediate danger.

It's easy to see why many of them are seduced into believing the resources of the Amazon are infinite. Whenever our boat would round a bend in the river, the green wall of forest would stretch out to the horizon, seemingly forever. Day after day, the boat plodded up the river which snaked through the forest like a brown ribbon blowing in the wind. Occasionally we would pass a village or a farm, but they seemed puny compared to the forest that surrounded them. The size of the Amazon is so immense, it's beyond comprehension. Experiencing the incredible vastness of the forest, it's easy to dismiss the staggering statistics on how quickly it's being destroyed.

Some estimates say the rain forest is disappearing at the rate of an acre per second. In the process, an animal species is being made extinct every single day. Many of these species have never even been identified by scientists.

Even though the Amazon teems with wildlife and is home to two-thirds of all the world's animal species, you'd never know it by travelling on a river boat. Boats going upriver stick closer to the shore because the opposing current is slower, but it doesn't make wildlife any easier to spot. The constant blare of samba music from the miniature disco on the boat's top deck and the drone of the boat's engine are enough to scare most animals away.

Occasionally, large shore birds would rise from the reeds, but they were a rare sight. River dolphins were more common. Unlike their ocean-going cousins, these dolphins aren't quite as acrobatic. Alone or in pairs, they would break the water's surface a few times for a breath of air and then were gone.

Further expeditions into the backwaters of Amazonia in smaller boats were equally frustrating. You know the animals are there and you can hear them chattering in the treetops, but they're impossible to see. It's like going to a zoo and having blinds pulled down to cover the cages.

While watching for wildlife, I spent more time watching the Brazilians and how they interacted with the river. I was shocked at how they treated the Amazon like an open sewer. They didn't think twice about tossing trash into the water. I saved my garbage in a bag but when I wasn't looking someone threw it overboard.

In the towns along the way you could see raw sewage being pumped into the water and all sorts of junk floating along the shore. On the outskirts of Manaus there were oil tankers transferring petroleum into giant storage tanks, slopping some of it into the river in the process.

All of this disturbed me, but the leisurely pace of life on the river gave me lots of time to think about what I saw. In the end, I thought about the terrible things done to the environment in Canada and realized we're no better than the Brazilians.

When I flush my toilet, it ends up in the river. When I put my trash in neat plastic bags on the curb, it doesn't magically disappear. I can't tell the Brazilians how to save the forest. They have to do it themselves. We can help them, but ultimately, it's their river. I only hope we all wake up in time.

Copyright ©1988 by Mark Stachiew
Originally published in The Montreal Gazette

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