Fishing on the Rio Madeira and My Afternoon with a Garimpeiro

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Humaita´ is a rather pretty city on the Rio Madeira (which means wood). For the past few days I have been catching up on my X-Tudo and ice cream eating, tried my hand at fishing, and have met some colorful people along the way.

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The Rio Madeira is very murkey and I’ve seen exactly zero people swimming. I haven´t even seen anyone step foot into the water yet. The banks are quite steep and the currents are fast. Eddies are visible everywhere and foliage and drift wood spin by every few minutes.

While sitting on the edge I watch an oval shaped chunk of wood about the size of a hand pulled below the surface 4-5 times in one minute. The fish jump and attack all sorts of debris in the water and the dolphins stay close to the edge chasing the smaller fish. (Of course it’s nearly impossible to take a decent pic of them. All I turned out where some grey dots disappearing below the surface).

My fishing rig was Brazilian style (learned from Mr. Shotgun) and consisted of:

  • 1 Plastic Dydyo Cola bottle (rod and reel)
  • 20-30 ft of 17 lb test  fishing line
  • 1 completely over-sized hook
  • chunk of garbage styrofome as a bobber
  • spam as bait

The line gets tied to the cola bottle and you wrap it around and around as you pull in the line. This makes a pretty efficient handline. The hook was the smallest I could find in the stores but was way too big for anything I wanted to pull out of the water. I figured I’d use my machete if I pulled out a monster (wishful thinking). The bait was the cheapest meat product I could find.

I noticed that not only was there no one bathing on the banks but there was also no one fishing. Maybe they didn’t want to snag the dolphins by accident. I was slightly worried about this actually but figured they were out just far enough and probably wouldn´t go for a chunk of spam. I’d feel like a real piece of work hooking a dolphin. I already looked like a gringo kook with my get up but I was at least gonna give the fishing a wack.

As soon as I tossed my line in the water the bobber darted, dipped, and zig zagged before surfacing and sitting still. I realed her in and no bait. A few more times and the results were the same. I found a piece of rag to tie the meat in so the small fish would nibble it away before something of substance took a bite. But still, the results were the same and the rag was shredded.

Pirahna are a tricky species when fishing. My hook was too big for these smaller fish close to the banks and my bait didn´t last 15 seconds before being devoured! An older man pulled up in his long motorized Amazon style canoe and told me the fishing was very bad here. I could see why.

Tip about my lousy fishing spot from the man in the hat.

Tip about my lousy fishing spot from the man in the hat.

I was getting cooked in the afternoon sun and called it a day. I am holding on to my fishing rig for future use.

In the center of town is a travel terminal in a fairly nice colonial looking building with stucco walls, columns, and arches. I went there the other afternoon to watch a thunderstorm roll in and mix with the crowd. While standing on some stairs I noticed a visibly drunk man headed my way wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and boots. He had black skin and green eyes and a duffle bag over his shoulder.

It was siesta time and everything was more or less closed for the next few hours. He asked me about Humaita´and I told him I was just passing through as well. Once he found out my Portuguese was basic he was very careful to speak simply, slowly, and clearly which I greatly appreciated.

He was a garimpeiro, or gold/silver/gem miner and was on is way to a mine 60 km north of Apui´, the last town I was in before Humatia, called Eldorado do Juma. His name was a mix of J´s, Q´s, and I´s that I never really understood. He told me about how he went to different areas of the Mato Grosso, Amazonia, and Rondonia regions to mine in remote locations. He ordered a quick shot of cachaça from the terminal bar and continued.

From his bag he pulled out some smelly cream he put in his hair. Of course he made me smell it. Then he pulled out a bottle of peppers he put on his fish to eat and made me smell that. Then he pulled out a little prescription looking bottle for when he eats something bad and gets sick. He described how he gets dengue from time to time and how much his head will hurt.

Then he pulled out another little plastic bottle. It was transparent with no markings and had a red substance inside that reminded me of brake fluid. He told me it was for snake bites. If he got bit by a snake he would drink this liquid and go to sleep forever.

Woah…I guess that´s one way to deal with that situation!

Finally he pulls out two stones that he puts in his mouth to clean off the dust. They are fairly clear and colorless. He places them in my hands and says, “Topaz. For you. Keep them.”

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The bigger stone is about equal in size to the end of my thumb. The smaller one has a cool cleavage to it that is somewhat elongated with 6 sides or so. Anyway, I didn´t know what to make of the offer. They are pretty cool indeed.

I asked him if he liked Brazil and he crossed his heart and said he loved it. His eyes even welled up with tears. I think to some degree the booze was having its effect. Again, I was somewhat at a loss in this situation and changed the subject.

We talked for over and hour as he continued to drink. He proceeded to show me his scars. I had noticed a long streak on his forearm earlier. He tells me they are from none other than gun fights! Oh geez. There were three or four bullet scars from shoot outs including a big welt of a scar on his back. I asked if these fights were in the jungle with other garimpos. He had told me earlier he hated Bolivians. Nope, they were from when he lived in the city. He told me about how he used to rob people…but never Americans! He liked Americans.

Now I was wondering what else he had in that duffle bag of his. I didn´t like where any of this was going, especially when he asked me which hotel I was in. Perhaps he wasn´t fully aware of the impression he was now giving but I wanted to make my departure before things went south… and he was getting drunker.

I thought of Hunter S. Thompson´s quote, “You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug,” especially when they  just told you they used to rob people at gunpoint for a living.

I wished him luck, thanked him for the conversation, and headed in the opposite direction as my hotel which was in sight from where we were sitting. I felt guilty for having nothing to give him in return for the stones (although he was eyeing my onyx and silver necklace given to me by my girlfriend Sara before I left for this trip).

Humaita´ has been a nice respite from the road. I almost feel nostalgic at leaving the dirt behind for now but I’m sure I’m being overly optimistic about the road head.

We shall see….

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(Since writing this I have now seen a bunch of the famous pink river dolphins surfacing in the Rio Madeira!)

8 Responses to “Fishing on the Rio Madeira and My Afternoon with a Garimpeiro”
  1. Great work on those posts, and great work on the journey!

    by sara
    on 29. Oct, 2009

  2. Great job Doug! I hope the new road treats you well.

    by Erek
    on 29. Oct, 2009

  3. The amount of Portuguese you’ve learned it amazing. I got caught in the rain biking to work but couldn’t really complain in contrast to what you’re doing. Glad you’ve got some pavement ahead, enjoy!

    by Adam
    on 29. Oct, 2009

  4. Great experiences. The fishing rig is cool and I’m not sure what to make of the gold miner either?? I think you did the right thing–back out of the room slowly! Take care and don’t worry, you’ll find some more dirt road. Meanwhile some smooth going would be good.
    Love Dad

    by Dad
    on 29. Oct, 2009

  5. amazing description, I feel like i am making the journey with you! I eagerly await your updates. Enjoy the trip and keep us posted as you continue to meet interesting folk and get immersed in the culture.

    by Pony
    on 30. Oct, 2009

  6. You must have dinner with us when you get back. I hope you’ll write a book about this fantastic adventure. Doug, you have GUTS !

    by Pete's Dad
    on 31. Oct, 2009

  7. That Garimpo guy seems shady good move bailing out of that conversation. Keep an eye out for him.

    by mike d
    on 31. Oct, 2009

  8. Great read. Sounds like Jqqiqjqijqjqiiqi was a pretty solid dude. Lol!

    by Yost
    on 02. Nov, 2009

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