Maues

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With a sharp blow of a machete, something that looks like a coconut breaks in two.

It is the Brazil nut. Very thick, very hard – I can imagine what that machete can do. Inside, there are more smaller nuts, which also need to be cracked with a hammer to get to the proper nut.

I am sitting, eating nuts, sipping fresh coconut juice.

My emotions are high after a seventeen-hour journey of a lifetime on the waters of Amazonia. In front of me, Reverend Marcos is sitting. He and his wife Fatima are going to be my hosts for the next two weeks of my trip around Brazil. They have a big house, two large dogs and a garden full of coconuts and other exotic trees. They only speak Portuguese, so all three of us are learning a new language of communication. We differ in terms of language, skin colour, and culture; but when people are stuck with each other, it turns out we have so much in common that after those two weeks we practically communicated fluently.

The Reverend and Fatima were wealthy people for the conditions in Maues. They were very religious; they looked after children from the neighbourhood. On the first day, I met Caio, Tomas and Jake. The boys were nine, eleven, and twelve years old. Every day after school, they came to the Reverend and spent the whole day there. Fatima always treated them to coffee and biscuits; they also had dinner there.

They had strict rules – none of them would go in unless invited. When we were having dinner, Jake, who usually came first, was waiting outside, often looking at me through the window. Only after dinner, Fatima brought them coffee on the terrace. I played football with them, and we soon became friends; I also let them play with my phone. They were the Reverend’s scouts. They helped him around the house, cleaned his motorcycle and car.

Every day, I went with the Reverend to the port by motorcycle, where he showed me around and introduced to people. When the boys appeared in the house, all five of us went in his truck. In the port, we got on a boat and sailed to different places. Every short trip was a memorable experience. On the boat, everyone knew what to do – the Reverend stood at the helm, we jumped into the river, they showed me dolphins, we went to fishermen on the other side of the river, I met people, some of them had seen such a stranger for the first time. I soon felt settled there.

Every evening, people gathered to listen to the Reverend reading and interpreting the Gospel. Jake, Caio, and Tomas were always in the first row together. I noticed a strong bond between them and Marcos. In the next rows, there were other kids and their mothers, few married couples.

Marcos always stole the show. He read and spoke with confidence, commitment, and belief. The crowd listened to him with humbleness, their eyes closed and head bowed. Fatima broke the seriousness of the situation with music. She prepared popcorn for the participants and at the end of the meeting, everyone – children and adults – got their ration.

All of them ate it right away. Those people were just hungry, it was easy to notice. For the following days, I visited the houses of the boys and other children from the neighbourhood. Most of them lived in rooms without floors or beds, with a makeshift kitchen composed of a burner and two pots. What most of those children had in common was that they did not have a father. The one-night kings usually left their pregnant women. This, however, did not discourage young girls from such relationships. The families were large; in one of them, there were eight children. Without a father.

The Reverend told me that most of them did not eat such food as we did. They did not have rice; they usually had fish because they could catch it themselves. They lived in severe poverty, tangled in the net of life. As a result, a community was created on the sidelines. Poverty destroys people from within, limiting their prospects, depriving them of dreams, and making them unable to think independently. It is addictive. It also produces deep looks of hopelessness and a twinkle of hope. Jake had such a twinkle in his eye. He was intelligent and was the leader of the group. He was also sensitive and full of energy, but he was trapped in his consciousness of existence. When I visited him to meet his sisters and mother, he was sitting on the street, looking at the ground. It was a look of a person full of dreams, planning something in their head.

It was also faith in something bigger, some hope, but also fear. I imagined what was going on in the heads of the youngest children. The Reverend told them about the good and evil, punishment, and the right way to live; he also spoke about hope and praised Jesus. He changed his voice to sound gentle, joyous; he made people laugh. It seemed they regarded him as a role model and, in some sense, a father.

For the following evenings, I decided to hide and went downtown. They did not have alcohol in the house, and I needed a beer in that heat. In the night, Maues turned into a green, pink, and yellow city. It was dark after 18. There were no lights on the streets – the only lights were the motorcycles, moving like hand torches. Women were exceptionally beautiful, most of them had Native American looks. In that time, Native Americans arrived in the port to pick food and allowances; they stayed for a few days and returned to their reservations. I wandered the streets, watching the city calm down, come to a standstill. Here, in the port, life is different – there is trade and some money; there is no hunger. There is television and sport; there are smiling women. I go past the largest, well-kept building – the church. Inside, there is air-con. People seem different. They are wearing shirts, suits, and dresses. Wealthy people usually avoid outcasts.

Success avoids poverty; they never go hand in hand. It does not want to assimilate. Poverty arouses sympathy, which is a short-lasting emotion and soon goes away. I go from one bar to another, meet people, they are often old men, communication problems make it hard to get to know each other. And each of them wants to get to know something about me. Hardly anyone speaks English here. My conversations with young people are limited to smiling and simple questions. A question that kept repeating was whether I had a wife and maybe I would like to marry that girl? I noticed that they did not offer me a girl but always a wife. Most of the girls on the boats that were 13 and over already had a husband and children. An eighteen-year-old girl with four children was an ordinary sight.

It was getting on for 22, the Reverend called me. He would come and pick me up in 15 minutes. We would meet in the regular spot. Next to the church.

By: Piotr Sobik

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