Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Amazon

By Leighton Gage

Father Gaspar de Carvajal was a Catholic priest who visited the coast of South America in the middle years of the sixteenth century and wrote a book about it.

The book begins in a perfectly believable fashion. They were, he said, following the coast, keeping it on their starboard (right-hand) side.
One day, the coastline veered from south to west. The water around their ship went from blue to brown and a current began to push against the bow, both signs seeming to indicate they’d entered an estuary.

Five days of steady sailing ensued, still with no sign of an opposing shore. The sailors began to have doubts. If they were on a river, it was huge, larger than any in Europe.

Then, on the morning of the sixth day, their ships were suddenly and viciously attacked. The assailants were a host of natives in canoes, natives who (according to Gaspar ) were all women, set on capturing our men for the purpose of procreation.

Mind you, the crew had been at sea, without women, for many months by then. They might have welcomed some feminine company, had not Gaspar, wise man that he was, claimed to have been in possession of superior knowledge, i.e. that the ladies weren’t after a lifetime of connubial bliss. They were after a date and dinner – with the seamen as the dinner.

Fear of cannibalism strengthened the crew’s resolve. The attack was beaten off. The women disappeared into the jungle, never to be seen again. And not one member of the crew accused Father Gaspar of being a mean-spirited Baron Munchausen of sexual angst for inventing the story. (Okay, I made that last part up.)

But Gasper made up more than the story. He also invented a name for the place where it all happened,
He called it the Great River of the Amazons, later (shortened and Anglicized) to become the Amazon River.
He was, of course, inspired by the legend of a similar tribe of warlike women in the mythology of the Greeks.
But who needs tall tales, and myths, when it comes to the Amazon? I sure as hell don’t. For me, the truth is impressive enough.

The Amazon is the oldest river in the world. Ten of its branches are larger than the Mississippi. Its length, from source to mouth, is almost equal to the distance between New York and Berlin. The total volume of the main river, and its tributaries, far exceeds that of the next five largest rivers on earth. The amount of water that it dumps into the sea could fill Lake Ontario in three hours. That amount of water exceeds, daily, the total volume of what flows out of the mouth of the Thames in an entire year. Almost one-fifth of all the river water in the world flows past the Amazon’s banks. As it pours into the ocean, fresh water pushes salt water back a hundred miles into the open sea. A thousand kilometers upriver, the depths in mid-channel continue to exceed 115 meters (350 feet), more than enough to completely submerge the Statue of Liberty. If every person alive in the world today were to dump a four-hundred pound bag of dirt into the ocean, the total would not add-up to the amount of silt the Amazon carries into the South Atlantic each year. When the river rises, the resulting flood inundates an area twice the size of Austria.

There are more species of fish in the Amazon River than there are in the Atlantic Ocean...

...bigger fish than can be found in any other river, fifteen times as many species as can be found in all the rivers of Europe. Twice a year, between the months of February and March, the Atlantic Ocean waters roll up the Amazon in a great tidal bore ( that the Brazilians call the Pororoca. It generates the longest waves on earth, sweeping along everything from piranhas to tree trunks. One Brazilian surfer, Picuruta Salazar, managed to ride one of those waves for 37 minutes. It carried him for 12 kilometers.

Most of the river is lined by jungle, a primeval rainforest hardly changed from Father Gaspar’s day. Within it are to be found more varieties of butterflies than anywhere else...

...half the world’s bird species, one-third of all the types of living creatures on earth. And almost three hundred varieties of mosquitoes.

One word of advice: Should you add The Amazon to your bucket list, center your visit around Santarem, not Manaus.

Santarem is a rather pleasant place as far as isolated jungle cities go. Manaus…isn’t.

Want to know why? Read my book, Dying Gasp.


Earl Staggs said...

Fascinating story and amazing facts, Leighton. I knew the Amazon was huge, but not as immense as you outlined. As for the Amazon women, I think I dated a few.

Jean Henry Mead said...

All I can say is WOW!

Shane Cashion said...

Very interesting! And it's definitely on my bucket list.

Chester Campbell said...

You'd better watch this Chamber of Commerce stuff, Leighton. You'll soon have hordes of mysterious writers descending on you and Brazil will never be the same again.

Ben Small said...

Great post. Have you read 1491? It goes into great depth on the Amazon River and how it flowed through early history. Fascinating. Great plug, too. I'm ordering the book.

Leighton Gage said...

I laughed out loud when I saw your comment. Thanks for bringing some humor into my day.
Posts here (hopefully) offset the scary side of Brazil that I present in my books. Many Chambers of Commerce are gunning for me, especially the one in Manaus.
No, I haven't yet read 1491. But I just looked it up and now I'm gonna buy it. Thanks for the tip! As to "Dying Gasp", a suggestion: Read "Buried Strangers" first. There's a particularly distasteful character who appears in the former whose life is only resolved in the latter.
Jean and Shane,
Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Amazing facts, most of which are new to me. No wonder I have no desire to go to South America. Maybe Peru. No, think I'll stay in the U.S. or head for the UK. At least I speak the language there.