A Hammock in the Amazon | Ghost Town

Airão Velho, June 1991

Parrots fly up, screeching. Nelson lifts the snake off the tree stump with the barrel of his gun, the animal’s head blown away by the shot. He points to the horned tail. The Brazilian lancehead is the most feared snake in Latin America. Because of its camouflage, it’s like a mine: it explodes when you step on it, but sometimes even sooner. Its bite is not only painful, but due to the amount of venom, life-threatening. As we move further away from Airão, the vegetation becomes denser. Grass and thorns cut through my skin like razor blades, tree roots reach for my ankles.

Back at the river. This used to be a trading center, but since the last residents left Airão in the early sixties, it has become a ghost town. Only the cemetery remains almost intact, as if the looters did not dare to go there. André, Nelson’s father, sometimes comes there to pick coca plants among the old graves. The indigenous population uses the crop in the preparation of epadu, a ceremonial stimulant, the use of which has come under pressure. Frustrated by the lack of success in the fight against cocaine smuggling in the Amazon area, the federal police have begun destroying the indigenous community gardens where it was only grown for personal use.

André sits by the fire and carves arrows for his blowpipe. Tomorrow he is going back to his house on the Camanaú, a tributary of the Rio Negro and gateway to the Waimiri-Atroari people’s reserve. He radiates tranquility in everything he does. Only that afternoon, when I asked him about the poison for his arrows, his eyes sparkled.

“Tell him everything, just not what the antidote is,” Nelson joked, and André named the roots jacamincabaripatoá and irari, the last of which is directly lethal. But also jungle fruits like uaraumá and ubim or envira taia, a tree bark, are used in the preparation of mauáculiá, as curare is called here. At least, if André spoke the truth.

“Be careful,” a friend who regularly visits the Waimiri had said. “They don’t like it when you ask too much. They can talk to you and kill you the next moment.”

It’s night. A grinding sound and the breaking of branches wake me up, as if something large and heavy is being dragged through the forest. “Giant otter,” André whispers. In his voice, there is a tone of respect. I listen to the rustling of the leaves and the sighing of the wind. Fireflies wander like ghost lights along the trees. From the top of a stump sounds an eerie laughter.

To be continued…