It strains credulity, but there in the jungle, or at least within a powerful arrowshot of the jungle, is a small zoo. It is a small military zoo, where bugle calls sound, where in combat fatigues and high-heeled sandals the guide introduces the exhibits in an unpedantic style. "These are nize li'l monkeys," she indicates. "These are big-belly monkeys. This is paca. He is a big rat." No sign of paca. "Maybe he go down in groun'," she says indifferently. "These," she pauses at a pen of guinea fowl, "are all good eatin' bords." Next door, 20 carelessly heaped feet of anaconda has turned its back on the pair of live chickens that is clearly destined to be its lunch. Not far away is the Amazonian jungle, still rich in jaguars, anacondas, nize li'l monkeys, big-belly monkeys—but this, courtesy of the Brazilian army, seems to be as close as you can get to it. The animals have been captured on "jungle maneuvers," says the guide.
The wildest life there ever was on this particular stretch of the river flourished in the last years of the 19th century. Manaus, only 20 kilometers away, was a roaring, wicked boomtown then because the Amazon had the world rubber monopoly. Its days were numbered from 1876 on, when Henry Alexander Wickham, in the cause of Empire, smuggled wild rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil, had them germinated in Kew Gardens in London, then shipped the plants to Malaya and Sumatra. But it was a long time before sneaky old Wickham's action spoiled the fun. Manaus had its instant millionaires in their carriages, with splendid baroque mansions built in clearings that the jungle was swift to take back when the price of rubber fell from $3 to 20¢ a pound. It was a boomtown with style, with an opera house that would not have been out of place on the Seine or the Danube. They shipped the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, in to sing, the incomparable Sarah Bernhardt to tread the boards 1,000 miles up the Amazon. No expense was spared by gentlemen who sent their evening shirts to be laundered and starched in London, express service five months.
This very evening the local ballet school would present The Nutcracker Suite in the opera house. And so we were off to the opera house, still standing, even restored somewhat. The French baroque ceiling, all rosy-rumped cupids, acanthi and generously bosomed goddesses, is bright, the Corinthian pillars regilded. Only the original drop curtain is faded. And the imperfections of the Manaus Corps de Ballet, in particular those of a large lady who achieved arabesques with all the grace and style of one who swoops to retrieve a small object dropped into the long grass, only enhanced the sense of past glory.
On the road back to the Tropical, we came upon an odd sight. A cluster of lit candles at the roadside, a bottle of wine, a bowl of manioc, some chicken feathers, a crucifix. Suddenly the hotel was 10 kilometers and 500 years away A candomblé offering, we were told later, voodoo, Brazilian style, possibly a spell to prevent a married man from straying. Very chic in Brazil just now. Wasn't Pelé himself on television the other day with the candomblé priestess from Salvador? To thank her for past favors, to repay promises he made as a young man should he achieve success on the soccer field?
Maybe, I told my companion, we ought to arrange for the priestess to spill a little chicken blood over Abercrombie's last farewell. Because now we were headed for the coast, where all things were possible, according to a brochure put out by the Brazilian Tourist Authority and entitled The Colourfull Sea.
"Listen to this," I said. "They have, and I quote, 'Snooks, drifting at will in all directions in the upper waters, staring at nothing.' And moreover, 'In places where the movement of the sea agitates the waters, the giant Permits and Pampas find their climate....' " I was packing the five sections of my rod away into its neat little case. "First," I murmured to it, "you are going to catch the great big snook with the faraway look. Later I might match you with a pampa—whatever that might be."
Recife in Pernambuco, on the northeast coast, was where we planned to go first. But the hotel denied knowledge of our reservations, and Recife itself proved to be Hamburg or Liverpool with added sun, bars lining the long waterfront for sailors to yaw in and out of, where they could buy, brief research revealed, WHISKI SCTCH 40 CRS PER DOSE. Or, GIM. Or, GIM-TOMCA. Not a place to linger.
But Tampaú, 100 kilometers up the coast, looked more promising. Half a mile out to sea, clear blue water fractured on a pattern of reefs. Beyond, local fishing boats were working and they did not work in vain. Close to the hotel, a small but bustling fish market operated. There dolphins were being butchered, meaty ones, 30-, 40-pounders. Half a dozen wahoo were lined up for the customers and one groaning bench was heaped high with red snapper. And there, in a corner, staring at nothing certainly, were snook. Not great big ones but very acceptable six-and seven-pounders. The only question was, would the world's worst fishing-rod bargain be up to the tasks that lay before it?
But luck seemed to be holding. In the hotel was Senhor Vidal, manager, headwaiter, speaker of English, a man with every characteristic of the natural-born fixer. At dinner, after pointing us firmly at the red snapper meunière, he considered briefly the question of fishing. Luiz over there, he said, indicating a thin and elderly waiter who could have been Graham Greene in disguise, picking up a little color for his next novel, Luiz had a brother who was a fisherman. Would 11 a.m. suit the senhora? A gallant as well as a sophisticated man, Senhor Vidal.
The gallantry proved disastrous. An 11 a.m. start meant time for an hour at the pool first, during which, gallant myself, I attempted to haul the senhora's chair, with the senhora still aboard, into the sunshine. With a howl of agony I realized that an old fishing-trip wound, a back injury sustained in a hotel shower in Brisbane, Australia, had flared into violent life. Half the hotel staff helped me to the resident masseur, an enormous man smelling heavily of violet oil. After he had worked on me for three quarters of an hour, the doctor arrived. Vitamin B[Sub 12], straight into the shoulder muscle to relieve spasm. Powerful pain-killers to be crunched. I limped offstage to bed. If I could stand in the morning, new arrangements could be made.