I was up at 6, mainly to see what the Amazon looked like at dawn. The delta fingers had merged, and we were now in the main channel, perhaps two miles wide, steaming up its brown waters. From time to time, we could make out clearings with low-roofed houses or open-sided pillars. White local ferryboats hugged the riverbanks.
Almeirim loomed ahead. We could see letters spelling it out against a grassy bank, a mini ‘Hollywood’ on the skyline of Los Angeles. I had time to kill while waiting for my allocated tender. There are huge moths all over the ship, in frozen postures on the deck, walls and doors. These unexpected stowaways attracted admirers with cameras, and provoked a spat between an obese man who insists on sitting on the same lounger, in the same space, every day and Tony Rice, the environmental professor, who was an eager snapper.
‘Leave the bloody thing alone,’ yelled the obese man as a moth took wing. ‘Now look what you’ve done with your constant pestering.’
‘I assure you sir, that if you knew as much about environmental issues as I do . . .’ I forget Tony’s explanation, but it was fun while it lasted.
Once ashore I wandered the waterfront. My eyes were assailed by pool tables, motor cycles, and lack of drainage, for huge brown puddles covered the roads from recent downpours. It was hard to tell if anyone had a job, for no one appeared to be working. Every house seemed to have a gaggle of poorly dressed children in glassless windows.
Today had the potential to be a corker. All the ingredients were in place. Small town, enough hours to get to know it, nothing touristy to ruin it – it wasn’t even mentioned in either of the guidebooks I had brought – and if all goes to plan, I’ll get under Almeirim’s skin.
I tried to roll back the years to set myself targets as I would once have done. Not for me churches, museums, that kind of thing. I generally favoured lower orders of existence – cemeteries, prisons, brothels (window-shopping only) – for these would tell me more about how any community functioned and what values it held dear. And to achieve this, I needed to interact.
Level 1 interaction is simple; conversation with locals. Ask them anything, even if you don’t care about the answer, and then go and ask someone else the same question to see if their answers matched.
Level 2 is getting an invite into homes. That’s not so hard, and gives you a chance to look around, to see what they’ve got and what they haven’t.
If level 2 goes well, I might get an upgrade to level 3, the offer to eat or drink. This both fills the stomach and teaches me the local diet.
Level 4 would have been precious to my younger self, short of money, but the offer to ‘stay the night’ no longer applied when I had my cosy cabin awaiting me.
My simple target for Almeirim was to find the school and, once I had found it, announce myself to the head teacher. If he or she could not speak English, it should not be too hard to find a teacher who did. And then I would ask if I might possibly address a class, hijack a lesson for ten minutes by introducing myself and engaging in a little English conversation as a native speaker.
Such a project would be futile even to attempt in any city. But in small, out of the way places like Almeirim, such a variation in the daily routine was more likely to be welcomed than obstructed. We would see.
I had ticked off several ‘level 1s’ before the latest deluge forced me to take shelter under an overhang. Just feet away from me a smiling family eyed me through the window (which I call a ‘window’ for want of a better word, because like all other windows nearby it had no glass, so technically it was just a huge square open hole).
A man in his twenties beckoned me, and within a matter of moments I discovered he was a teacher. A few minutes more and he was pointing to show the direction of the school.
I shall ‘fast forward’ now. The town itself lay up a long flight of steps away from the river, which I might have missed but for my guide. When, hours later, I eventually returned to the ship, my mental logbook was full of ticks. The oldest observable date in the sandy graveyard was 1912. Countless baby-sized graves competed for space with imposing mausoleums, whose cost must have been considerable.
Next stop the municipal offices and the court-house. The public hospital surprised me by having guards at the entrance, but all seemed so still it might have served as a cemetery waiting-room, which perhaps it was. Almeirim’s prison had six cells, I was told, but was empty at present. Its walls were built of latticed white bricks, and when I put my ear to them, I heard what I thought were wails within. Not so empty, perhaps.
Local ice cream in the smart apartment of my guide’s parents – shoes off at the door, every available mod-con within – concluded my tour of Almeirim. It was hard to know what to make of the ‘facts’ given me by my host – only one doctor in the whole town, just twenty policeman, and the same number hooked up to the internet, of which my guide was one.
Did I speak to the local school? Sadly no, it was closed for holidays.
Extract from ‘Murder on the Marco Polo’ a collaborative account of an Amazon Cruise by several of the passengers, edited by Clive Leatherdale and published at £14.99. Do any of them die? Find out more at www.desertislandbooks.com.
Copyright © 2011 Clive Leatherdale