Dance of the Dolphin
"Our legend is that there was a very pretty girl in one family. Here, you see, we used to hold a ball the Rose Ball and before the dance, the girl came to bathe in the river. She didn't notice she was being watched by a boto. But from that time on, the boto wanted her."
Through Isabelle, Necca is telling us the story she learned from her grandparents. Necca's full name is Ludinelda Marino Gonçalvez, and she is forty and wiry, with the high cheekbones of a Bourari Indian, a heritage of which she is proud.
Even though we hear her words in translation, as we sit beneath the thatched roof of the cabana where she sells fried fish and soft drinks at the edge of Lago Verde, we can see Necca is a master storyteller. She reveals her story slowly, slyly. As she speaks, her eyes slide from corner to corner, as if spotting some detail there to remind her of the next turn of events.
"The night of the ball," Necca says, "the beautiful girl arrived with her boyfriend. But the boto was the handsomest man there. She looked at him and fell in love and he with her. They were blind for one another."
Oh yes, Dianne and I agreed with a glance. We knew that feeling: when love floods the senses, jams your sonar, blinds you to all else. Lightning might crash around you, eels and piranhas nibble at your toes, and you don't care, because only One Thing matters that longing which has overtaken your soul. We humans were made for that sweet, sweeping sickness. But what if you have fallen blindly, impossibly in love with a dolphin?
Necca continued: "One man realized that this was a boto. He chased him away. But the girl loved him. She loved him madly. At the next ball, she came and looked for him. There he was, and they danced all night in each other's arms, and then they walked on the beach.
"They lay down in the sand, and there they made love. They did everything with each other," Necca said, inviting us with her eyebrows to imagine the details. But after the lovers fell back into the sand exhausted, he suddenly leapt up and disappeared into the water.
"She was heartsick. She went to the village curandeiro, hoping he could help her find her lover. The curandeiro asked help from the Mother of the Lake. The Mother agreed to ask the Moon to call him back. For the girl was now pregnant. And the curandeiro saw that the father of the child was a boto.
"At the next full Moon was the next ball. The Moon called to the boto, and he came to the ball to meet his love. And then the girl told him she was carrying his child. Now he was forced to explain: though he loved her and longed to be with her, he could see her only at the balls, for he could change into a man only on those nights.
"It was months before the next ball. When they met again, she brought him his son. Every ball thereafter he came to see her, to dance with her and see their son."
Necca choreographed a dance to tell the story. Braulio had told us this earlier: the dance is performed each year, the last week in July, at a festival at the water's edge in Alter do Chão. Necca has danced in it, and now her beautiful twenty-four-year-old daughter, Keila, performs; when Keila's young daughter is old enough, she will dance, too.
"Many people, old people, believe this story," Necca told us. "Many girls today come to the balls hoping to meet a boto! For they are the handsomest men there. And when people come to see the dance, dolphins often come near the beach, as if they knew the dance was about them."
As rain was our companion on earlier journeys, now our companion is fire. We had welcomed the rain, flooding the world with its brimming abundance; but though we dread the fires, we cannot escape them. Some days, on the horizon at Curucu, there are four or five columns of smoke; some days the air is leaden with it, pressing the river flat as quicksilver. One night, fire had nearly come into Alter do Chão itself, so close we could feel its gnawing heat. Always, somewhere, there is fire or smoke, insistent reminders of the greed consuming the world.
As we head to Curucu this morning, we see three big fires to the west, and the air is hazy. Only in the river can I find respite from the burning. As Dianne unpacks her photo gear, I swim out to meet the first fins. I breaststroke slowly and they come to me: first, the mother and baby; one very large pink adult; two big grays.
I am surrounded, but I do not know this; Dianne, taking photos from the top of the Gigante, later tells me there were dolphins all around me. Two pinkish tucuxis joined the group, one with a slash across the dorsal. For three-quarters of an hour, there was not one minute that I could not see a dolphin at eye level. As they surfaced, it seemed I could feel their glance. Or perhaps it was their sonar. Later, I would learn that people who work with marine dolphins say they feel the animals "sounding" them, throwing out trains of ultrasonic clicks created by moving muscles in the melon, and waiting for their echo to return. Their sonar retrieves a three-dimensional soundscape, a sonogram, of what lies ahead of them; the boto, with its flexible neck, can turn the head in a wide arc and obtain an exceptionally broad sounding. One researcher, Bill Langbauer at the Pittsburgh Zoo, told me when the sound waves hit him, it feels like humming with your teeth clenched.
But that was inside an aquarium tank. I swim inside of living water, and always I feel the water humming, charged with life like the blood in my veins. I cannot feel the botos sound me, but surely they are doing so. They can see through me, as God does. They do not touch me, but their soundings penetrate my flesh. They know my stomach is full and my womb is empty; they can see the faulty mitral valve in my heart. And yet, even possessed of this astonishing sonar, they still pull their sleek faces out of the water to look at my face. Why would my face be important to them? They can recognize me by the other nine-tenths of my body beneath the water. Yet they look into my face again and again. They must know we humans wear our souls on our faces. Perhaps, to them, too, a meeting is more profound when it is face-to-face.
And what do I know of them? I only know the sex of one the mother with her baby. I do not know how long they have lived. I do not know how far they travel. I do not know if this group always stays together, or only comes together here to investigate the pale, terrestrial stranger who hangs in the column of water before them.
But somehow I am not frustrated that I will never learn the answers; this is not, I now know, what they have to teach me. Already, their kind had shown me so much: the botos brought me to Manaus, the impossible Paris in the Amazon; the botos drew me to the Meeting of the Waters. The botos drew me to Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo, and to Mamirauá, and now, to the clear waters here. Throughout these four journeys in the Amazon, I had followed them, though not in the way I had originally planned. For the verb "to follow" carries many meanings, most of which I hadn't been aware of when I had decided to follow them. To proceed behind them, to go after them in pursuit, as I had envisioned when I'd hoped to trace their migration, was merely one way of following. Other meanings are more subtle and profound: to be guided by; to comply with; to watch or observe closely; to accept the guidance, command, or leadership of; to come after in time; to grasp the meaning or logic of. And so, without chasing them along a migration, without a single hit on Vera's telemetry, I had followed them nonetheless. In Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo, I had followed them to the spirit realm, where shamans commune with the powers of the plants and visit the Encante; with Gary, I had followed them back through time. At Mamirauá, they had taken me to the heart of the Amazon's modern conservation dilemma. And now, I followed them still, hanging in the water before them, ready to receive their gifts and their guidance.
I always save the moment I enter the water for them. Dianne and I wait at the edge of the river, and I do not swim until the dolphins come. I spot one fin, close, and give my body to the water.
Dianne stays at the edge of the river, or sometimes on the roof of the Gigante, photographing. She is a strong swimmer, but her father was a sea captain; those who know water most intimately, I have found, tend to more wisely respect its dangers. But I lose myself utterly in the water, like a soul leaving a body.
Now that we have come here daily for a week, we recognize seven individuals: there are two medium-sized grays, the bowler-hatted businessmen. In fact, Dianne knows an Englishman who owns an actual bowler hat, and we named one of the dolphins after him David. The other we named Gary, whose distinctive rain hat had been the envy of everyone on my second trip to Peru. One very large gray dolphin we name after Vera. A very large pink one we call Valentino. Another is gray with pink lips, and we name him that Pink Lips. And occasionally we spot a mother and baby. It is nearing Christmastime, so we call them Mary and Jesus.
Pink fins, gray bellies, the bulbous soft heads; I so wish I could touch them. I can feel the currents their bodies make as they slip through the water. One day, I look down into the water beneath me and see a large gray form swim under my feet. All but immersed in these clear blue waters, I feel as if embraced by paradise.
In Curucu, we had found an ideal site. We could imagine no situation better. But we still felt we should visit the dolphins of the Arapiuns.
At the Mercado 2000 in Santarém, we had met a fisherman with thinning hair and strong hands named Valdomiro Ribero who had spent a month on the Arapiuns when he was fifteen. He would never forget it. "There were many, many dolphins there," he had told us. One night when he had slept on the beach, he had spotted two strange-looking girls, perhaps eleven and thirteen years old. Their skin was very white, he said, but had reddish spots. And they had very little hair. These girls, he had been told, were the boto's daughters.
Certainly, there had to have been a reason that film crews had bypassed our lovely Alter do Chão and made the day-long journey upriver to the Arapiuns to the west. Perhaps, Dianne and I thought, the waters were even clearer there, the dolphins more easily seen.
We found making arrangements for the journey difficult. Not every boatman will risk it. Braulio told us his Gigante could not negotiate the current. The portion of the Tapajós leading to the Arapiuns is difficult to navigate there are dry spots and rapids and besides, he said, the place is full of mosquitoes.
It took us five days to arrange for a boat. Sadly, Isabelle was leaving us, to visit Brazilian friends in Belo Horizonte, but she helped us get the trip organized before she had to depart. Socorro knew a boatman, Gilberto Pimentel, who agreed to consider the trip. Necca's beautiful daughter, Keila, speaks some English, and she agreed to help translate our negotiations for the boat. Grateful for Keila's and Socorro's help, we invited them to accompany us. To our surprise and delight, they accepted.
Through Keila, Gilberto explained that his boat was a strong one. It is named Boanares, after his father, who accompanies him on his trips. "But even with a strong boat, the trip can be dangerous," he warned. "Many boats break up when the water is angry, and there are many shifting sandbars. The river is so wide that you cannot swim to shore." We should plan on bringing supplies in case we got stranded, he told us. In any event, we would need to spend one night on the water, where, he confirmed, there would be many mosquitoes.
We left at four in the morning, when the wind was very still. But after an hour of travel, the waves grew so rough that the little table in the cabin fell over, and all of us but me were thrown from the hammocks we had strung up in the boat's central cabin. We sat on the floor. We stopped for an hour at Ponto des Pedres Place of the Stones to wait for the water to calm down.
Another hour's travel upriver, at about fifteen miles per hour, and we reached a spot called Icuxi. Here, Gilberto strung up his seventy-foot-long net, with plastic Coke bottles for floats and a brick of red sandstone for weight. Once the net had caught some fish, he explained through Keila, the dolphins would come. So we waited. We lay in our hammocks. We walked along the beach. We waded in the water. But, although the net caught several fish, no dolphins came.
We continued on. We passed more white sand beaches. We passed innumerable fires. Finally, toward sunset, we reached the Rio Arapiuns. Its blue waters were calm. No fewer than nine fires burned on the western horizon. To our surprise, the Arapiuns looked exactly like the Tapajós.
As night rose, we strung up our hammocks again, and Dianne and I fitted ours with mosquito nets. The mosquitoes were as voracious as predicted. To our dismay, we discovered that Socorro and Keila had not brought netting, but our friends did not complain; clouds of Portuguese were rising from their hammocks in an animated discussion. I imagined their Portuguese somehow repelled the mosquitoes, like a column of smoke from a mosquito coil.
I listened, and to my surprise, even with my rudimentary grasp of the language, I found I could understand their conversation:
"Do you think a boto will come?"
"Will he be enough for four women?"
"And we'll need one for Gilberto! And for his father!"
"Oh, we will not sleep tonight! We will wait for the boto to come!"
"If only we had festa music to attract him!"
Rocking in my hammock, I could feel the waves rising beneath me like a lover.
We woke at five and headed to a place called Jari. There were many shallow channels there, and good fishing for both people and botos, Gilberto said. With Keila, Gilberto took a rowboat out to speak with the fishermen, to see if they had seen any dolphins.
Yes, they said right over here! They pointed to a channel separating two grassy shores where skinny cattle were grazing.
And sure enough, we spotted three botos: a large pink adult, a large gray adult and a small, grayish pink baby.
Quickly, Gilberto and his father set the net across the channel, confining the botos to the shallow waters where we could best see them. The water is only waist deep and somewhat muddy. Dianne quickly loads her camera. But in the channel, something has gone wrong. Something is caught in the net the baby boto! The bright pink adult starts to thrash in the water, showing her flippers, obviously distressed. The baby might drown! I jump into the water without thinking to remove my sneakers and immediately sink into the mud up to my ankles. Gilberto and his father jump in, too, wisely barefoot, and rush to the net. I stagger to join them.
The baby is squealing in terror, and with every effort to escape, entangles itself further. Gilberto's father, Boanares, reaches it first. I try to hold the baby still and keep the head above water while Boanares disentangles the flippers and tail. He does not want to tear the net. A seventy-foot net takes more than a week to make by hand, and in a store costs $150. "Cut the net! Cut the net! I'll pay for a new net!" I bellow, but of course Boanares doesn't understand me because I have forgotten all my Portuguese.
The baby screams in my arms. Its melon heaves with the force of its terror, its blowhole opening and closing, howling like a tiny mouth. The infant is nearly four feet long, and shockingly strong, one big muscle tensed in panic. The best I can do is hold it still, try to calm it down. I slowly stroke its skin, running one hand under the belly, holding its side against my pounding heart. The skin feels like a boiled egg, and is now flushing pink with exertion. I know now the baby will not drown, but I fear the net will cut the delicate skin. I look into its pearly eye. To the terrified infant, I am a lightning storm, a caiman, a pack of piranhas, an evil spaceship. The baby has no way to understand that we are trying to help.
Finally, Boanares frees it from the net. I hold the baby for a moment longer, at once a heartbeat and forever, my clasp around its body a plea and a prayer. And when I release the boto, I let go my heart from my throat, and feel the water surround my empty arms like forgiveness.
But now the mother is caught in the net! Dianne hands her camera to Keila and gets in the water with us to help. The mother is much calmer than her baby. Dianne wants to hold her, and the mother doesn't struggle in her arms. I almost wonder whether, in the manner of mother birds feigning a broken wing, the mother had embedded herself in the net to distract us.
Now the dolphins swim free. The dark one leaps, as if in triumph. Gilberto and his father remove the net. We all adjourn to the orange and blue Boanares.
Everyone is exhausted. Socorro and Keila had been terrified that the two adult dolphins would attack us while we tried to disentangle the baby. Gilberto and his father were afraid that somehow the Brazilian environmental police, IBAMA, would find us with a dolphin in our net and arrest us all. And Dianne, though seeming cool and poised, was worried, too: she was afraid that she would miss the shot. But she didn't.
I collapse with emotion the thrill of holding the baby, the terror that it might be injured, the guilt that had a boto been hurt, it would have been my fault. In the Tapajós, I had so wanted to touch the botos. But here, we had not intended to catch the dolphins, only to briefly confine them; yet this near tragedy, which could have drowned two botos, was, I was sure, a consequence of my own desire, flaming like a fire on the edge of the horizon. Again, I am reminded of the damage an outsider can wreak.
My sneakers are encased in mud. My feet are made of clay.
On the way back, we stopped at Curucu. Even after only one day away, we missed "our" dolphins, and although Keila and Socorro knew we were swimming with them daily, they had never seen such a thing and were eager to watch.
Within three minutes of our arrival, the dolphins appeared. It felt like coming home. I swam out to them, perhaps a quarter mile. All seven botos appeared, blowing, pulling their heads from the water to look. A single tucuxi leapt. Valentino surged out of the water, showing his flippers. One of the medium grays, Gary or David, rolled on his back, waving his flippers, and then turned, flipping his tail.
Meanwhile, Gilberto and Boanares set the net beside the boat. Within an hour, it was heavy with fish. Dianne, Socorro, and Keila stood on the roof of the Boanares, watching and suddenly, fast as an arrow "Rápido! Rápido!" shouts Socorro Valentino shot by the net upside down and plucked a fish from the mesh. Another dolphin which I couldn't see tried to grab it from his lips. Valentino rocketed to the surface, shaking his head with the fish in his jaws, and jetted away.
We waited to see if more dolphins would feed from the net, but none came. When we retrieved the net, we noted with horror that it contained two four-inch, red-bellied piranhas.
Periodically, we would take the bus into Santarém to change money. It was usually an enjoyable ride of an hour and a half or so, depending on the route, and we became such familiar passengers that the robust, mustached bus driver began to greet us (particularly Dianne) with a hug. Brazilians seem to try to fill every silence with music, and like most buses, this one came equipped with a tape deck. Even though we would have preferred Caribe or boi-bumbá, our driver often played American artists in our honor. On this December day, as we return to Alter do Chão from some morning errands, he plays an Elton John Christmas tape. Outside, it is snowing: huge black snowflakes swirl through the windows, the cinders of a fire whose heat we can feel nearby.
We are driving through thick smoke. Our driver is unperturbed. On one side of the bus, the trees are burning. None of the passengers seem concerned. An entire side of the road is flaming like a Yule log, and absolutely no one cares until we come to a corner where one of the fires chews through the thatched roof of a house. Now they gasp and cry, "A casa! A casa!" and crane their necks to see.
When we return to Alter do Chão, the skies are smoky and brooding. The day before, we had learned, there had been such a dangerous wind on the Tapajós that many fishermen raced home early. But today the wind is even stronger, as if fed by the force of the flames.
We have a larger boat today. Braulio, too, had to go to Santarém on an errand, and arranged for his friend Manuel to take us out on his forty-foot boat, the Sabiá. The craft bucks on the waves. We anchor at Curucu, and immediately Dianne spots a pink fin. I go to him, swimming out a quarter mile before I stop to look, treading water.
The waves slam against my face. They jostle, like tall people who crowd in front of you at a parade. I try to peer around them, only to be slapped again and again. The water goes up my nose and down my throat. I am swallowing the Tapajós, and it is swallowing me.
I hear a blow. I turn to spot two grays. David and Gary have surfaced next to each other, seven yards from me. The sound of their breath comes to me on the wind and seems as if it is in my ear. I feel safe with them.
But meanwhile, Dianne grows nervous. The two-foot whitecaps whack the boat so hard that bottles and fishing knives crash through the cabin, a bar of soap skids across the floor, a stool flips over. From the poop deck of the Sabiá, she can no longer see my head at all, not even with her camera's 300 mm lens or her binoculars. She calls to me: "You're too far out!" but the wind takes her voice away.
I'm treading water, scanning for dolphins. The waves behave like a schoolroom of naughty boys: they grab my hat, snatch at my glasses, pull at my bathing suit. A forehead surfaces and dives, a dorsal rises and rolls, the waves bob up and down it's like a hall of mirrors, the dolphins and the waves, the waves and the dolphins, until I feel as if I am staggering, drunk. And then the dolphins are gone.
My arms and legs are working hard to fight the current. I feel the water trying to sweep me around the point. I look back to see where I am and notice the boat looks small as a toy. And now Dianne's voice comes to me on the wind. I work my way back to shore a tiring swim. Dianne jumps out of the boat to meet me in the water. I've been inside the waves for thirty-five minutes, and as I emerge, I realize my arms and legs are tired. But just as we sit down on the shore together, we spot another pink fin. I go back out.
A tucuxi leaps in front of me. Dianne tells me later that half a second after that, two other tucuxis ganged me from the back. Most of the time I couldn't see them, but I was surrounded by dolphins tucuxis and botos, like guardian angels against the storm. Perhaps that is why I was never for a moment afraid.
I come back to shore and together, Dianne and I watch the smoke-stained sunset. Just as we are about to leave, we spot big, pink Valentino. Amid the waves, his dorsal ridge seems to hang above the water like a sail in the air weightless, timeless, impossible.
One afternoon, Braulio failed to meet us at the Gigante at the usual time. While Dianne waited with the photo gear, I trekked back over the sand to his house and found a spiffy red car in the courtyard. Braulio was next door at the restaurant, the Lanchonete, with a young, dark-eyed lawyer named Felicio Pontes, Jr. I invited him to join us. He speaks French, Portuguese, and English the English with a French accent. He lived in Paris for a year. Born in Rio, he worked in Belém for a year before coming here to argue cases to preserve the forest in Pará.
Unlike the local Brazilians, Felicio swims and swims well. But he won't go out into the waves even a third as far as I do. He and Dianne wait as I swim to the dolphins five of them today. Valentino surfaces close to me, opening his blowhole not five feet away, intimate as a kiss, and then slowly rolls over. David and Gary surface side by side, then dive. I can see Mary and Jesus in the distance, stealth-floating near the surface. They are eyeing the stranger among us cautiously, I imagine. When Mary dives, she shows the flukes of her tail.
The others stayed near for half an hour and then swam away. I returned to Dianne and Felicio, and as we stood together in the clear water, Felicio told us Indian legends. He told us how the tears of the Moon, weeping for her lover the Sun, had formed the Amazon, the river of impossible love. He told us how the tambatajá tree was born: when a Macuxi warrior's wife was killed in war, the grief-stricken husband buried himself alive beside her grave. The beautiful bananalike tree arose from that soil, he said. "It is a plant very melancólica," he said, "very huge with branches like arms closing."
How was it he came to know these stories? I asked. "It's important, in order to convince the judge of your argument, to know what is important to the people," he answered. "I prefer always to stay with the people and learn how they understand the world."
As an environmental lawyer, Felicio represents the people who still swim in the tears of the Moon, who still see their own love and tragedy twined in the arms of the trees. Felicio tells us of one case he recently argued and won: "There are a hundred and ten falls in the beginning of the Tapajós River," he says, "and they were going to explode them, to make the river more navigable for commerce. But the Indians there told us this was happening and we stopped it.
"It is very recent, this kind of justice," he says. "Belém was the site of a federal court, and now, in 1996, it begins in Santarém." For today the courts are the stage for the operatic clash of different worldviews: on one side, extraction and commerce; on the other, wholeness and holiness. And it is a drama, we learned, played out in the river in which we swim a drama that continues now, even in our flesh.
That night, we invited Felicio and Braulio to join us for dinner. As we shared the delicious tambaqui com leite de coco that Socorro had prepared, Felicio told us that the Tapajós was a river remade.
"Two years ago, you couldn't have seen your dolphins here," he said.
"Why not?" we asked.
"Because," said Braulio through Felicio, "the Tapajós looked just like the Amazon all brown and muddy!"
"What!?" Dianne and I were astonished.
"There was no difference!" chimed in Socorro. "Everything was contaminated."
The river had been the victim of an Amazonia-wide gold boom that during the 1980s had rivaled the California gold rush of the nineteenth century.
And what a boom it was: At its height here along the Tapajós, in a single day more planes would take off and land in Pará's tiny, regional Tatuba airport than anywhere else in Brazil. People walked around in the streets carrying gold in their T-shirts, stretching out the fabric like baskets, Socorro remembered. "And at that time, you bought things with gold and not money," said Socorro's husband. He had bought a certain motor for less than three ounces of gold back then; today that motor costs $3,000. "The price of the machine has gone up, but the price of gold has gone down," he explained.
In the last decade, Michael Goulding has written, gold has been "the single most valuable resource exported from the Amazon basin," earning revenues estimated at $1 to $3 billion. The reason for this wide estimate is that as little as a third or even only a fourth of the gold extracted from the Amazon is sold through official channels. Most of the miners an estimated half a million of them in the eighties are independent fortune-seekers, called garimpeiros, working in the rivers illegally for so-called "placer" rather than "hard rock" gold.
Back at the Meeting of the Waters, when we had begun our journey, Dianne and I had met one of the men who risked his life for gold. He spoke English and introduced himself as Raymond Des Costa, age thirty. He was wearing a Reebok muscle shirt and a black cap advertising a Pink Floyd album with the phrase "Up Against a Wall." Raymond and some friends had just come from Colombia to Brazil looking for gold-diving jobs. It is not an easy life, he explained: "For two months I trained, and then for two weeks I suffered." On one of his first professional dives, he had gotten the bends, the painful bubbling up of nitrogen in the blood, and was hospitalized for two weeks, bleeding from the nose and ears.
The divers first check for gold at the river bottom, eighty to ninety feet down. If you find any, he explains, they send in "the Missile" a suction pump with hoses operated from a barge or raft. It sucks up the river bottom, then spits everything out. "The Missile, it can throw down big trees, eat all the mud," Raymond said, his eyes flashing with fear and excitement. "If your hands go in its mouth, it will break them up. If your belly go near, it sucks it out. If you be around, you be dead when the motor starts hauling. Thank God I live." The money is good, he said. But he lives a dangerous life, as one can see from the tattoo a girlfriend inscribed on his arm eleven years ago: a cloud with his initials circles a heart with a dagger through it.
Thousands of these dredges sucked greedily at the sediments of the Tapajós, clouding its waters with mud. Now we understood why the film crews had all gone to the Arapiuns; for a decade, the waters here were too muddy to film.
But the worst damage was unseen. To extract the gold from the sediment, garimpeiros add metallic mercury to the deposits in their sluices. Much of the mercury falls directly into the river. Some of it adheres to the gold, isolating the precious ore. The two metals are then separated by blowtorch; the mercury evaporates and leaves the gold behind. But the evaporated mercury does not disappear. It falls as toxic rain into the forests and rivers.
A report of a United Nations research project called mercury pollution from gold mining "one of the most serious environmental problems in Amazonia today," warning that "damage from gold mining in Amazonia may be felt for decades to come." Predatory fish such as tucunaré, pirarucu, aruana, piranha, and many catfish the species most people here eat are most likely to accumulate mercury rapidly. "The long residence time of mercury in river sediments can contribute to health hazards long after the gold mining frontier has moved on," wrote its four respected authors, Nigel Smith, a professor of geography at the University of Florida who has worked in the Amazon since 1970, and his three Brazilian colleagues. The consequences? As much as 10 percent of the mercury one ingests lodges in the brain. Insidiously as greed, mercury clouds human perception and response to the world: as nerve damage progresses, it eats away at movement, hearing, feeling, speech, and thought.
I would read the U.N. report after my return to the States. To my horror, I would learn that in four communities tested in the Tapajós watershed, over 60 percent of the people had mercury levels in their urine high enough to warrant regular testing as recommended by the World Health Organization. Over half the river sediment samples taken from Tapajós and its affluents exceeded the limit for safety set by the Brazilian regional secretariat.
Gold-mining camps, the report further noted, transmit diseases. Miners introduce new strains of malaria to local populations that have no resistance. Indians are likely to suffer more severe malaria symptoms if gold miners are operating nearby. In Roraima, the new frontier to which more than 50,000 hopeful miners migrated by 1990, hundreds of Yanomami Indians died after the miners arrived. In one two-week period in 1992, 44 Yanomami died from malaria in one village alone.
But as Michael Goulding notes, the early-stage symptoms of mercury poisoning are very similar to those of malaria: fever, chills, nausea. It is possible that the Yanomami literally died of gold fever.
Felicio takes consolation in the Tapajós's latest transformation. "In two years, we can reverse the situation," he said. By 1992, most gold miners began to leave the Tapajós for new frontiers. Today, with the price of gold less than half what it once was, the water here is now clear as the diamonds in Dianne's dream. The river looks as if it has completely recovered. No wonder we consider water an almost infinitely forgiving medium: with it, we try to wash our sins clean.
I felt heartened by Felicio's optimism. I was grateful that the Indians and their environment had this kind, wise, energetic young man to speak eloquently on their behalf.
But in the sediments of the river, in the sweet flesh of the tambaqui we ate that night for dinner, in the bodies of the dolphins with whom we swam, in the organs of the people we were coming increasingly to love, and now, in tiny amounts, in Dianne's brain and mine, the mercury lingers still.
Necca was well aware of this when she started her dance troupe in 1993. People were forgetting the old ways, she said. Many even forgot that Alter do Chão was once originally called Aldeia dos Bourari Village of the Bourari. And when people forget who they are, they forget how to act. Look at the fires, she said: Sometimes they burn for four days! Night and day they burn, and she cannot sleep for the anger. And look at the garbage on the beach: everywhere, as we had seen to our dismay, the white and lavender sand was littered with plastic bags, drinking straws, jugs. "They spit in the plate they eat from," she said. "The people don't understand. They forget they depend on the land."
But once, her people knew. Once, she said, they could talk with the Moon; the Moon was the goddess of growth, protecting pregnancies, manioc gardens, forests. You must never cut wood at night, she said, for the Moon is jealous of her trees. This the Moon remembers, even if the people forget. And then Necca told us this story:
"One day," she began, "the fishermen of the village noticed that the most beautiful girl in the village had disappeared. They couldn't find her anywhere! So they asked the curandeiro to get her back. He performed the rituals to ask the Moon for help. Where had she gone?
"The Moon answered: she had been enchanted into the lake. But the lake, the Moon promised, would give her back. The people would see her again.
"At the next full moon, there was thunder. And in the middle of the lake, there appeared a beautiful tree, glowing brilliantly like the Moon, and with colored fruits. The tree went for a walk out of the lake. The people were surprised and frightened! Then the tree came back and sank back to the bottom of the lake. Its fruits fell and they changed into the beautiful green frogs who gave their color to the lake." The lake was once called Lago do Muiraquitã, Necca tells us, in honor of the little green frogs there, who bring luck.
"The beauty of the Indian girl became the beauty of the lake," she explained. "And on full-moon nights, the tree would rise from the lake and walk about the village.
"But one day, she didn't come back from her walk," Necca said. And then she was silent.
"What happened?" I asked.
"We are still waiting," said Necca, "for her to come back."
And as they wait, the world is falling apart. "There is a danger," said Necca, "because our sons and daughters may never see the world as nature intended." They may never learn how to build a grass house. They may forget the herbal medicines. They may forget how to make pottery, charcoal, natural dyes.
There is trash on the beaches, fire in the sky, mercury in the water. "There was the epoch of rubber," said Necca's younger sister, Laurenice, who had joined us at the little table beneath the thatched cabana on the beach, "and then the epoch of gold. Now it is the epoch of wood and even that leaves speaking English. And what does the villager get? Diseases. Mercury. There will be no dividend for the people."
The dividend for the people will not come from rubber or gold or timber, Necca said. It will come with remembering. Necca and Keila dance to remember the wholeness of a fractured world.
"I wish that you had come in the summer," Necca said to us. "You could see the Dance of the Boto." We wished very much we could see it, I said. We wished we could stay longer. But Christmas was coming, and friends and family expected us back in the States. In a few days, all too soon, we would be leaving.
The morning of our last day in Alter do Chão, we visited the Indian museum.
WE ARE NOT A MUSEUM, a placard informed us in English as we entered the door. WE ARE THE CENTER FOR THE PRESERVATION OF INDIGENOUS ARTS, CULTURE, AND SCIENCES. Its mission: "To document and preserve for the future all that has been forgotten, discarded, and overlooked in the indigenous history of the Amazon." An ambitious agenda, Dianne and I thought.
The Center, we read, opened in 1992, "the great dream of Maria Antonia Kaxinawa," David Richardson's wife. We found her stringing beads for the museum's gift shop. Similar-looking items pottery with frog and geometric designs, basketry, beadwork are available in Santarém, but a sign in the museum decries such merchandise as "airport art."
As you enter the impressive yellow cement building, you are greeted by a large central mound of vegetation, which reminds me of a waterfall, and in fact there is a pool at the bottom. This display is dominated by a large inscription:
After I had taken a lot of the drink, I started to chant. The ground became red and flattened, beautiful. The sky began to sing We! We! We! The colors of the rainbow began to appear and swirl about like a snake. The spirit allies began to arrive....
My soul began to shine.
One by one, the spirits arrived the MOKA the frog spirits with quivers of arrows on their backs. The peccary spirits...the spirits of the waterfall and the fish spirits. All game had moved into my chest....
I was deeply moved by the inscription. I asked Maria Antonia where the quote came from. "Oh, it's something David got out of a book," she said. She knew nothing more about it. Later, I read the inscription to Mark Plotkin, who has studied Amazonian tribes for more than fifteen years. He said it almost certainly described a Yanomami ceremony in which the people snort a hallucinogenic snuff, the way others take Ayahuasca, to contact their spirit guides.
I was disappointed to discover there was nothing to be learned in the museum about the Bourari. "They are completely acculturated now," Maria Antonia said, so the museum pays them no tribute. Instead, the center concentrates on displays of art and artifacts of tribes now extinct or nearly so. Among them were the Tapajós. Before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1626, this river basin, we read, was the economic hub for the Amazon. The Indians who gave the river its name had built an impressive civilization here. Eight thousand years ago they created great art, especially ceramics, including large, ornate funeral urns. The craftsmanship of their pottery "surpass[es] the finest Venetian glass," wrote an explorer. But the Tapajós people went extinct, succumbing to foreign diseases, a mere forty-seven years after first contact.
More than ninety Indian tribes in Brazil alone have become extinct since the turn of the century, a rate of one tribe a year. Murdered and enslaved, victims of foreign diseases, greed, religions, and alcohol, they are disappearing still. Mark has spoken eloquently of this loss: when one of the medicine men of these vanishing tribes dies, he has said, "it is like a library has burned down. Only it's worse, because the knowledge in a library is recorded elsewhere, and when these men die, their knowledge dies with them."
The Center is like a library in ashes. For each tribe, there is a display of artifacts: woven basketry, feather headdresses, masks, and sometimes photographs, like items rescued randomly from a burning building. Below the objects, handwritten in Magic Marker on cardboard cards, brief texts in four languages give a fact or two about each lost or dying culture. The words on the cardboard placards are succinct as tombstones:
The Kanamarís: The first explorers to contact them in 1940 found a culture rich in song, dance, and the art of permanent facial tattoos. Now there are 643 of them left in the state of Amazonas. "In 60 years," we read, "they traded their past for alcohol."
The Yanomami: Known as the "Fierce People," 62 percent of them tested positive for new strains of malaria brought by gold miners, we read, and only about 8,000 of these people now survive in Brazil.
The Waimiri-Atroaris: Their territory, in what is now Amazonas state, was once the most feared in the Amazon. Their population decimated to under 3,000, they surrendered to pacification in 1977 to make way for the Pan-Amazonian Highway and a hydroelectric dam.
The Matses: Their facial ornaments include bones through the nose to resemble whiskers and shell earrings to pay mystical homage to the jaguar. Masters of the blowgun, their hunters could kill a hummingbird in flight and a monkey at 130 feet. Since first contact with whites in 1976, their population has dwindled to 123.
The Tukanos: Their legends once told how the first man found a sacred trumpet, and from its music flowed the stars and the wind, the rivers and fish, the forest and game, and all his children, including the tribes of the Desana, the Wayanas, and others. The 2,631 who remain are now dominated by Christian religious groups.
The Asurini: Native to the Rio Xingú, they were known for the fabulous geometric designs they painted on their pottery and bodies. There are only 10 women and 7 children left.
The Tenharim: Players of the sacred flute, they adorn themselves with beautiful feather necklaces and earrings, and crush dried flowers to sprinkle them on the body after the bath. Fewer than 350 are left, many struggling with alcoholism.
The Marumbas: Native to the Vale do Javari, they were decimated by the slaving and murder of the rubber trade. Only 622 survive.
Culture after culture is rendered down to a sentence or two: the Campa, master weavers who brought the pan pipe to Peru; the Desana, who called themselves "Sons of the Wind"; the Waiwai, who play sacred jaguar-skin drums; the Wayaná/Apalai, who believe a mystical bird created the world. But today their world is on fire, consuming their songs, their knowledge, their language, their forest, their gods.
Of the people called the Parakanás, we learn only two facts. They once lived along the Xingú River basin and in Pará. There are only 300 of them left. The rest of the text on their card asks a question: "We can wonder what the world would be like without the magic of the mighty elephants to show our children," we read. "What will the world be like without the Parakaná?"
As we walked down the sloping red dirt street back into town, we met Keila. We had planned to visit Curucu one last time that afternoon and to take Keila with us. She told us to meet her at two, by the boat belonging to her friend Simão, the Sousa. She had a surprise for us.
We waited by the Sousa, a larger boat than Braulio's Gigante. Then, coming over the gentle slope of the sand dunes, we saw Keila, her blonding, curly hair flowing beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat and behind her, eight of her friends, carrying bags and baskets. They had come, she explained, to perform for us the Dance of the Boto.
They were beautiful, young, lithe women and men: Edson, Nilson, Carisson, Trenato, and Edany, Elailene, Franides, Diolene, the boys wearing baseball caps and muscle shirts, the girls in little black bikinis and pareos. In their bags, they carried their costumes and unlit torches and props. They had brought a cooler full of snacks and drinks.
The Sousa, gap-toothed like its owner, spewed smoke and fumes and noise as we chugged to Curucu; Simão bailed water with the dried husk of a gourd. The boys sat in front of the boat with Simão and Keila, while the girls giggled in the back.
Keila's arm shot out as we approached the point. "Boto!" It was Valentino. As the dancers debarked, I swam out to him, and soon I saw they were all there, as if to bid us farewell: David and Gary, Mary and Jesus, Valentino and Pink Lips, Vera and two tucuxis. In the first thirty-five minutes, I counted twenty-six sightings. David and Gary swam very near, pulling their heads from the water to look into my face. Twice I was enveloped in clouds of sizzling bubbles they sent up to embrace my skin. Three of them leapt in a starburst. David leapt high in the air, not ten feet from me; a tucuxi flipped his tail. Valentino came near and rolled over, showing his pink belly.
I did not realize that on the sandy banks of the river Keila and the dancers, Simão and his little daughter, were all watching in astonishment. When I came out of the water, the strongest-looking boy, with two earrings in one ear, asked me in amazement, "Voce não tem emedo?" ("You are not afraid?")
"Não eu gosto!" I replied. ("No, I like it!")
Twice more I entered the water and swam with the botos. I recorded forty-nine sightings in forty-five minutes and Dianne, on shore, saw many more surfacings, for as usual, without my knowing it, they had surrounded me. And then, it seemed, they moved off.
It was sunset, and a huge fire smoked in the western sky. The dancers were waiting for us on the other side of the point. Keila had set up a little grove of driftwood as props. "My mother doesn't want us to cut trees from the forest," she explained. The young dancers had consumed their drinks and snacks and carefully stowed their garbage away in the cooler. Already, they had donned their costumes. The girls, serious as virgins, wore simple white gowns. They stood facing the river.
The boys, wearing white pants and shirts and hats, began a confident, sinuous saunter toward them, as if swimming. In unison, they began to sing:
"Quando o boto virou gente
para dançar no puscirum
trouxe arco, trouxe flecha
e até muiraquitã, e
dançou a noite inteira com
a bela cunhantã."
"When the boto transformed to a man
to dance at the village ball,
bringing the lucky bow and arrow,
and carrying the frog-charm for luck and passion,
he danced all night with the beautiful peasant maiden."
They danced on the beach like lovers, each couple a unit, tenderly cupping the face or touching the hair of the partner, staring into each other's eyes. "They were blind for one another," Necca had said; in this moment, each partner seems to glow with passion. With the sun at their backs, we could see the shadows of the girls' little black bikinis beneath their white dresses, all innocence and new desire. The boys laid down their partners in the sand and embraced them, singing:
"Um grande mistério na
roça se fax, fugiu cuhanta
com um belo rapaz..."
"The mystery throughout the land
being the disappearance of the village beauty
with the handsome man..."
The sun was melting a golden river on the water, backlighting the dancers. Their features were now indistinguishable. No longer were they these boys and girls; by the magic of their story, they were transformed. Now their song seemed to merge with the voices of the spirits: the Mother of the Vine and the Mother of the Lake, the angels of Music and Opera, the ghosts of divas and murdered Indians and Mario's little son. They called out to us to remember. They sang with the voices of the scientists: Vera and Gary, Miriam and Andrea and Peter, inciting us to probe and to wonder. They sang with the voices of the visionaries: those who create and sustain reserves for both people and wildlife, like Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo and Mamirauá, urging us, even in this era of need and of greed, to hope. They sang with the voices of Violetta and Alfredo, the impossible lovers of La Traviata. And they sang in the voices of Moises and Ricardo, Don Jorge and João Pena, reminding us that, here in the Amazon, the most preposterous of impossibilities can come true.
In this way, Keila's young friends became the story, as ancient, as perfect, as distant, and as present as the sun on the water. And perhaps the dolphins knew this, too. When we looked toward the water, we saw the botos had returned. They swam low and slowly, blowing softly, their eyes above the water, watching the drama on the beach.
"E o boto ligeiro na roça fugiu.
Desejando a cabocla
na beira do rio..."
"The boto fled through the fields,
desiring the maiden
by the river's edge..."
The boys sprang to their feet, and with amazing speed and suppleness, leapt into the river and porpoised through the waves exactly like dolphins.
We are far from the Manaus opera house and the Meeting of the Waters. Now the air is thick with smoke instead of rain. Yet the journey ends as it had begun beneath the fabulous ceiling frescoes of the Teatro Amazonas: again, I am flanked by Dance and Tragedy.
Out of the water, the dolphin-men emerge. Joyously, each joins his lover, reenacting the promises by which we know the fullness of the world. The botos swim, the dancers dance. But in the western sky, the Amazon is burning.
Copyright © 2000 by Sy Montgomery