Reminiscing with a River

O Mamoré, generous sustenance giver, tributary, great earthworm of a river: I see you from above, pushing off and pushing on, northwards flowing, northwards growing, like an uneven, winding hem across the landscape. I see you from the plane, ever the direction shifter, you turn and return, loop and loop once more – almost full circle, several times, before you go about switching course again. Of the Beni, of the lowlands of Bolivia’s east you are a lifeline: the cargo boats ride you as their highway while as ecosystem extraordinaire you shelter creatures – in you the pink dolphins find their home. And with these important tasks, I ask, is it any wonder that as you weave across the savannah you are as commander of the Moxos Plains? What a view! O wild and majestic Mamoré, I know it too, that beyond the horizon the Amazon waits for you. So, below the patchy cloud in the day’s midst I see you twinkle as though winking at the sun, as I ready to re-embrace the jungle heat, as the tiny plane like a careless sparrow drops from the sky – and in, to land, at Guayaramerín.

O Mamoré, do you remember when we met? It was as that open-air truck, the camion from remote San Ignacio de Moxos, cautiously sidled down your muddy bank trying not to overturn in a rut, as it took to the ferry on its way eastwards to the Holy Trinity, Beni’s capital, La Santísima Trinidad. As you well know that was towards the end of the few-hour journey, for of course Trinidad was first established on your very bank, until, it seems, you tired of the dizzy distraction of the town-dwellers and urged them on, was that it? Through flooding and disease you pushed them back, not far, to relocate in 1769. What you might not know is how in the wild ranch-and-mission country of San Ignacio that morning I’d gone to meet the bus only to be confronted instead with that camion, arranged with loose-fitting wooden plank benches to sit on; and it was before we met I faced the dirt highway. But there were blue and yellow macaws in a towering dead tree and caimans lying in the open by the ponds in the cattle paddocks – not sure how the cows could drink there beside all those teeth – and rheas, those South American ostriches, with purpose they went strutting through the grasses beyond the road – and to find these animals without even trying made Beni seem a wildlife wonderland. So it didn’t matter about the patchy rain that fell on us or the dust kicked up that teased our eyes. When we met, if I wasn’t smiling it’s because the wooden plank seating, after hours, bumpy road, does little good to the posterior.

O Mamoré, what do you really think of Trinidad? The low buildings around the central plaza, the palm trees and the melting in the day’s heat, is it to your liking? It can be the sound of the town – the groan of pick up trucks and the buzz of moped and motorbike that swarms the air is unsettling but the Benianos are resourceful people, in tank tops and jeans, removed from the centres of Bolivian power in the Andes, neglected they may say, and proud of their lowland camba Spanish and their camba culture that inherited more from El Andalus than from La Paz. And I need a hat for the sun is fierce. Do you know that in the evening when the locals promenaded and moped-buzzed around the plaza I pondered how it would be to run a little English school there?

O Mamoré, tell me how it was, the Beni, for you saw the Spaniards arriving late, one of the last blank spots in South America on the European maps. You knew the pre-conquest civilisations, the people without a name who built vast canals and mounds across the savannah in a system of agriculture unique to the Amazon basin – they fooled the scientists, didn’t they, who thought that because Amazonian soils are infertile, despite the jungle, humans in any numbers could not subsist there. Isn’t it strange how they’re trying those old ways again, the farmers growing crops on mounds, raising fish in the canals, facing the annual flooding with that prehistoric methodology that reduces the need to slash new areas of jungle every few years when the soils become depleted? You saw the indigenous peoples who came later, you watched as they faced the missionaries and their languages merged, as diverse groups they were reduced to the singular Moxeño people, old ways forgotten. Did they really benefit from Christianity? You saw the nineteenth century rubber boom and best of all you must know the truth of El Dorado: that legendary city of gold that many a fortune-seeker staked their future on, the city that was never found. But perhaps the only El Dorado was always, rather, the twisting and turning you!

O Mamoré, do you remember my little adventure in Guayaramerín? You’ve become the Brazilian border by then, isn’t it? And apart from that little disputed island it’s clear that on your far bank the Portuguese starts, in the Brazilian co-town called Guajará-Mirim. So I took the boat, do you recall? I saw how broad and fine you are –and from the heat I wished to, ill-advised, dive into you. There was ill-ease, did you sense it? I’d read I could enter the Brazilian town for the day without a visa and return but it wasn’t certain what would happen. I tell you, when I went inside the immigration building on the far bank I paused with a kind of dumb, innocent smile waiting for the official to acknowledge me, wanting to humbly ask if Brazil wouldn’t mind much if I slightly entered its territory for just a short while. The official quite deliberately turned his back which I took as quiet permission to wander past the desk and out onto the street – I’m sure that’s what it was about – overlooking the formalities, just as he’d undoubtedly done for foreign tourists before. I liked Brazil for that, not hung up and welcoming. Guajará-Mirim was not by appearance so different from the Bolivian side, as you know, just an outpost town in a remote pocket of that other country. It was hot, more than hot, I needed water and the shops were closed, even if they would accept Bolivianos in payment.

O Mamoré, I found a mid-range hotel, for water, not to stay, and inside there wasn’t a soul at reception but after some minutes a uniformed maid, attractive, came, and all I could say, the only Spanish I found, that I knew, that she would understand was ‘agua’ – water, aside from the hello and thank you I managed in Portuguese.  She took a bottle from a trolley, a bottle that must’ve been destined for a bar fridge and I only wanted a glass of tap, and I showed her, I couldn’t pay unless she would take the Bolivianos she didn’t seem to want. She put her finger to her lips, O Mamoré, it was secret, without language, between us – and there wasn’t much I could do. I was more than hot and more than thirsty – she could see that. Back at the riverside I boarded your ferry to Bolivia and again the Brazilians overlooked, didn’t mind, and I really admired them. It’s the sort of thing that’s beyond Australian comprehension. I imagine you admire them too.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Reminiscing with a River
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