A Dreadful Night

I once spent a rather miserable night on an island in the Amazon. It was in the 1990s, and my husband and I (perhaps not yet married?) were having an adventurous trip on Marajó Island, at the mouth of the Amazon river. On this day we had arrived by boat in a tiny village of no particular importance, using it as a stop-over on the way to the next larger town where we could catch the ferry back to the mainland. We arrived with our standard issue enormous backpacks and set out to find a hotel. Hotels were not to be found.

We asked a bemused local for advice and he suggested we ask the priest if we could use the guest house. The priest, a fat, lame and possibly excommunicated Jesuit, handed us off to a local teenager who cheerfully led us to the guest house. On the way he offered to shoot various wild animals, such as a vulture soaring overhead, just so we could see them. We asked him not to.

We arrived at the house, a cute clapboard cottage raised up on stilts to avoid tidal flooding. The young man hopped up the wooden steps and flung open the front door. Dozens of enormous spiders scattered into the darkness. A handful of large wasps buzzed in the now-sun-filled entry hall, annoyed at the sudden change of scenery. “A lady will come clean in a few minutes,” chirped the boy. “Just leave your bags inside. But don’t put them on the floor, so they don’t get bugs in them.” I looked desperately at my husband. I could not bring myself to set foot in a house filled with giant spiders, let alone angry wasps and mysterious floor-bugs. No amount of some lady waving a broom around was going to fix that situation. Fortunately he had sympathy for my panic and found a polite way to suggest perhaps another option could be found?

The boy pondered a bit, then suggested perhaps we could stay at the community center. We trekked back to the priest’s house, got a different set of keys, and walked over to an ample rectangular building of weathered board. Inside was a large space for community meetings, women’s sewing projects, and other group activities. It was simple, with only the plain board floors and walls, a few windows with single wooden shutters, and a small toilet room in one corner. The wooden posts supporting the roof provided a place to tie our hammocks. Hammocks were a nice way to avoid floor-bugs and spiders, so we happily accepted the new offer.

A bit later in the evening the boy returned, inviting us to go to the only bar to hear some local music. We had a beer and probably some fried snack foods while enjoying some local folk songs and guitar. Midway through the meal a gentle old woman came in, decided I was a long lost friend or relative, and sat next to me, clutching my hand and chatting happily. I was slightly unnerved, but sympathetic, and spent the next hour or two smiling back at her and nodding dumbly while she chattered.

When we were too tired to see straight the teenager walked us back to the community center. He passed the time telling us the local stories of the headless mule one sees at the cross-roads, the phantom black dog that appears when someone is going to die, and other ghostly tales. By the time we reached the community center I was terrified. I lay in my hammock sweating from the heat as well as nerves. Finally, too nervous to stay alone in the total darkness I begged my husband to let me sleep in his hammock with him. To fend off mosquitos, I draped a sheet over the two of us. Two people pressed together by a hammock while covered with a sheet in an equatorial climate was misery. Between the fear, the heat, and the endless unfamiliar noises I didn’t sleep a wink.

When I finally heard a cock crow I leapt from the hammock, ran to the bathroom, and then ran outside to enjoy some cool fresh air. I’ve never been so happy to see a day arrive.

The internet didn’t exist when we were there, but the little museum the Jesuit had built in this village is still there, and has a website!! Check it out!

The warriors and the gecko

Since the quarantine I’d begun exercising outdoors, in a shared space around the apartment building. It hosts a steady stream of adults exercising, but at tide-like intervals all the young children stream out of the apartments to play together. In particular there is a herd of five boys, the oldest on a bicycle, the next three on scooters, and the youngest running along on foot. Several carry plastic swords. The runner carries some sort of elaborate space weapon that is nearly as tall as he is. Their game is unclear, but involves running back and forth the full length of the space (a good 100 meters end to end, I’d think). They pause at each end, sometimes dropping their scooters and bike and plunking down cross-legged on the pavement to discuss some Very Important Subject. Most delightful are their encounters with wildlife.

One day the oldest came running up to me with his hands cupped. “Do you want a gecko?” he asked. I didn’t understand, but enthusiastically asked to see what he had. He opened his hands to reveal a very tiny and unmoving gecko, minus half of its tail. “Is it still alive?” I asked. “Well, yes, but it’s rather suffering,” he replied with a certain delicacy. “You see, we tried to pick it up by the tail, but it broke off. And then we picked it up regular-like, but I think it’s afraid and tired.” “It probably would like to rest in the woods,” I suggested. “Just let me show my mom, then you can put him in the woods,” he agreed. He dashed off, followed by the rest of the herd, shouting for his mother.

After a bit he and his friends came stampeding back and graciously handed over the traumatized gecko. I was about to set him on top of the wall along the woods, but the boy suggested that in the woods a snake might eat him. I agreed this was possible, and instead laid the creature under some branches in a large flower box where he would be shaded from the sun and out of sight of birds.

There is a certain awe these boys hold for the natural world that cuts through their shouting battles and sword-waving charges. In an instant they stop and stand fascinated, watching a lizard, a monkey, or a caterpillar.

That fascination and engagement reminded me of the wondrous quality my childhood play spaces had when I was that age. An overgrown lot at the end of a suburban street seemed as vast and engaging as a wild prairie. A small mound of dirt, abandoned after some unfinished construction project, offered a challenging ascent and high view. The branches regularly trimmed from the neighbor’s very tall hedge made a cozy lean-to that lasted until the next lawn-mowing day.

The memories of these places are vivid still, more than 45 years later, more so than many other memories. It’s a delight to watch these kids experiencing something similar.