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Forever lost is the name of the passenger who ordered the last champagne cocktail before the Titanic hit the ice. But I am nearly certain that I can close the file on a historical parallel. Late on the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 10, 1977, I believe I was the last man to pay the full price for a fishing rod at Abercrombie & Fitch before that august sporting goods emporium gurgled beneath the waters of insolvency.
I'd just arrived home, and I was unwrapping the rod with half an ear tuned to the six o'clock news when the tidings came. A bitter moment that became even more bitter when I realized that I would miss A&F's closing sale. I am probably the only angler in New York City who did not head down to 45th and Madison for some cut-price tackle the following week. When they opened the doors to the throng, I was 3,600 miles away, dangling a cube of filet mignon, medium rare, into the murky waters of a tributary of the Amazon and hoping for a piranha or two.
It is somewhat odd, in view of their reputation, that piranhas do not seem to care for steak bleu, or even rare. The bait as it lay on the stern of our boat gently cooking in the equatorial sun, had gone through both stages in the hour we had been on the water. Orlando, the guide, and my traveling companion were both using rods of bamboo culled straight from the jungle, but the ancient magic of pole and bent pin vs. sophisticated weaponry wasn't working, not even when we followed an old man in a dugout canoe, who trustingly held up a fine tucanaré, a fish resembling a largemouth bass tricked out like a parrot in red, green and yellow, that he had been keeping cool in river weed.
The old man had left Manaus, on the far shore, at 5 a.m. to fish this spot, so Orlando said. We harried him unmercifully, sidling up to him every time he anchored, slipping through narrow waterways behind him, until at last he turned and gave Orlando an earful of Portuguese. "Hokay," said Orlando in satisfaction. "Now he tells us where the piranhas are!"
We anchored in a bay of reeds, where saplings that had been washed down by the last flood poked through the surface. The steak cubes were nicely browned now, and maybe that was what the piranhas wanted, because they fell on them at once—red piranhas, gold piranhas, silver piranhas, all different species, Orlando said, and the little red ones were the meanest. Mr. Abercrombie, Mr. Fitch, it seems slightly shameful that the last of your rods was blooded—and that is precisely the right word—on such an essentially vulgar fish, all teeth and no subtlety, as a piranha. But that is how it was, and the collapsible spinning rod was not even accorded the honor of taking the fish of the day. That fell to my companion, who had succumbed to naked blood-lust, shouting with triumph as she swung each snapping little fish into the boat, snatching up the most promising-looking bait cubes and finally landing a black piranha, a good three-pounder. To me her smile was taking on a fangy, predatory look. "Where can we cook it?" she said.
We headed down the river to where some of Orlando's cousins lived in a house on stilts set among wild rubber trees, its main feature an enormous refrigerator, innocent of any electricity supply, crowned with a champagne bottle and flanked by models of Mickey Mouse and Snow White. The lady of the house cooked the piranha and served it with bananas and manioc grits. My companion ate hers, asked for a second helping and then for the teeth, to take home with her. She was showing disturbing tendencies.
After lunch we fished the main river, in a great brown eddy that might have had fish in it upwards of 300 pounds, fish with scales bigger and hornier than those of a tarpon, fish built like armadillos. But the beef was now curling black at the edges, and we caught nothing after an hour in the battering sun. It was time to head upstream and home, past the waterfront of Manaus, the shacks of the very poor, huts on broken stilts, almost afloat on refuse, blending into the slum of houseboats along the floating pontoons of the port.
Home to a great contrast, to the Tropical Hotel, one of the most luxurious in South America, it is said, where the Amazon Experience can be encapsulated into two days. A strange place with long, tiled, high-ceilinged corridors radiating from the lobby and pushing into the rain forest. There is an almost ecclesiastical silence, an impression strengthened by one's room. The heavy, ornate shutters of dark Amazonian wood and the high, carved closets seem to call for Gregorian chants, for requiem masses to be piped in softly.
And tend also, it must be said, to drive one swiftly to the pool, a huge one in three concentric circles and three shades of blue-green, clearly meant to recall the vast pads of the victoria regia water lilies that fill the backwaters of the river A peaceful place in the mornings when the tourist groups, usually either French or German, are out. Later it is noisy—either boisterous or shrill, depending upon which nationality is scheduled for it. The boisterous Germans can be easily identified when they come in from shopping. They are the ones with the bows and arrows.
Probably they will have bought them at the hotel souvenir shop, just as they embarked on their Amazon trip from the hotel landing stage onto the hotel river boat. And the hotel will also make it possible for them to view the wildlife without danger of insect bites or even getting muddy. It will gladly arrange for them to be driven to the zoo.