The Dark Side

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All counted, the visa had cost me about $400. Now I couldn't complete my journey. I still had two hundred dollars left - enough to travel around Brazil, and then hitchhike from Manaos to Caracas via Mount Roraima. But I wasn't sure I'd have enough money to fly from there to Cuba, and there were no flights to Russia from Venezuela. I decided to find Aeroflot office in Sao Paolo, and to fly home from there.

Well, I still had Southern Brazil to explore. I wasn't very happy to move into a Portuguese-speaking country just as I became more or less able to speak Spanish. Written Portuguese was similar to Spanish, but it sounded very different. Sometimes I could understand what people were saying, but often I couldn't pick a single familiar word from a phrase. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to say "juice" in Portuguese. I tried all possible variations of Spanish jugo and English juice, and eventually got it by using Romanian suk. I could have done better simply by using Russian word for it (sok).

Now I didn't have to save every cent, so I took a bus for a long drive across green fields and red pastures. Next day I was in Pantanal, a large area of lowland savanna in the area where Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia meet.

Pantanal has the largest concentration of wildlife in South America, and it is the easiest place to watch it. It was the beginning of the rainy season, and the country was just about to turn from a grassy plain with numerous small lakes into a huge inland sea with forested islands. Most of its inhabitants could be easily seen from the major highway as they gathered around the drying lakes: piles and layers of caimans, crowds of storks and spoonbills, and herds of capybaras. More rare, but still occasionally visible from the road, were large swamp deer and hyacinth macaos. The most interesting places were highway bridges. Looking into narrow channels under these bridges, you could occasionally spot a lungfish, a fishing rat, or an otter. The undersides of the bridges were used by huge colonies of bats, swallows, and wasps. I also spent nights there. At dusk, giant anacondas and crab-eating foxes crossed the road. Once in the middle of the night I felt something cold and heavy moving across my sleeping bag. For a couple of minutes, I tried to think of some way to avoid being eaten by an anaconda. Then I turned on my flashlight, and saw that it was a large Pseudoboa rat snake. It eventually curled up under my cheek, and rested there until morning.

The most beautiful thing I saw in Pantanal was a thunderstorm. As a black cloud was moving in from the east, thousands of birds suddenly took to the air, trying to avoid the storm. Macaos, huge jabiru storks, herons and ibises of every kind, and flocks of ducks looked as a tornado of color as they circled against the black backdrop of the thunderstorm, lit by the setting sun.

I visited two national parks on Mato Groso Plateau - Emas and Bananal. Emas was a sea of tall grass with countless red termite mounds; Bananal was mostly dry tropical forest. It had been raining there for about a month, so the air was thick with mosquitoes. The only way to move around without losing all your blood was to swim in numerous rivers. Snorkeling in flooded forests was great, and wildlife was as interesting as it gets: tiny monkeys, tree porcupines, bush dogs, dwarf tinamous... The only thing missing were the large aquatic mammals of the Amazon - manatees and dolphins. They couldn't get to Mato Groso because of a line of rapids along its northern edge.

I had to turn back to the coast without ever seeing the Amazon River itself. I crossed the dry kaatinga area, the world of cacti and bare clay, visited some Nature reserves around Rio, and went to Sao Paolo. This giant city was often described in guidebooks as an urbanistic nightmare, but I found it to be kind of nice for a megalopolis of that size. I had to stay at Paolo's place for a week (that's how long it took to change my Havana-Moscow ticket to Sao Paolo-Moscow in local Aeroflot office). The city had an excellent botanical garden (there were even some wild monkeys in it), and the best zoo in South America. But the most famous local attraction was Butantan, one of the World's oldest and largest snake farms.

Walking around Butantan, I found a large enclosure with lots of snakes, surrounded by a low fence. There were a couple of species in it that I hadn't been able to find in the wild. I waited for a gap between tourist groups, jumped inside, and started taking photos of them. A minute later a police car showed up. They asked me to get out, put me in their car, and drove off.

"That's OK," I thought, "they'll take me to a station, give me a free lunch, then I'll show them my Indulgencia, and get out of there."

Instead they took me to a psycho ward. That was too much. I showed them the Indulgencia, and went away without lunch.

I had a few days left before my flight home. One of Paolo's relatives invited me to his seaside mansion outside the city. It was surrounded by a huge area of secondary forest, with only a small part cleared to make room for a banana plantation. I found myself in a position that many naturalists of the past had enjoyed. I spent my time sunbathing and birdwatching, while local villagers brought to me all animals they could find or catch in the area. Farmers often dug up little-known creatures which are very difficult to find otherwize: worm lizards, caecilids, blind snakes, subterranean rodents, small toads that live in ant or termite colonies, giant spiders, "night train" firefly larvae, and other wonderful things. I searched the banana plantation, and found some very cute bats hiding underneath banana leaves. And the forest was full of birds, butterflies, and snakes. I'd never seen so many snake species in one place - I counted about fifty in less than a week.

As much as I'd love to stay in South America for a few more months, at least to wait out the Russian winter, I had to go back. It was late November, the worst time possible. I spent whatever money I had left to buy some tropical fruit for my family, and boarded the airplane. It made three more stops in Brazil (in Rio, Baia, and Recife), and in each place we had to wait for a few hours without ever getting out of the plane. Finally, my beloved continent disappeared in the night, and there was nothing below, only the ocean, dark as my near future.

The guy next seat was an old senior, who looked like a typical head of household from some Latin American soap opera. I was sure his name was don Alberto. In Rio he got a large bottle of vine, and soon it was half empty.

A few hours later, a tiny speck of light appeared below. It was Sao Paolo Island, a mountaintop of Middle Atlantic underwater ridge. Unlike many other islands of Central Atlantic, it is not volcanic.

"Sao Paolo island," I said quietly.

"A summit of Middle Atlantic Ridge," said "don Alberto" in Russian.

"Granite outcrop," I continued.

We looked at each other. Soon I found out that he was an oceanologist from Saint Petersburg, coming back home after teaching something in a university in Sao Paolo. We had a lot of mutual friends, and even had traveled in the Sea of Okhotsk on the same ship, although not at the same time. He was also very unhappy about going to Russia, but, unlike me, he had some dollars left, so we got very drunk very soon.

We landed in Sal on Cabo Verde islands, and got stuck for a whole day because of the fog. Here we were let out of the plane and even out of the airport - very unusual for Aeroflot flights. The islands looked a bit like the Galapagos, but the vegetation had mostly been destroyed by goats, and there was no wildlife except for a few birds. Then we crossed the Sahara. It was very beautiful at sunrise, with red ergs, blue regs, and black hammadas. But as soon as the sun climbed higher in the sky, the desert turned gray and boring.

The last six hours of the flight turned into one nonstop quarrel. It all started when a flight attendant said something rude to a passenger: the stupid guy could only speak Arabic, French, and Portuguese, but not Russian or at least English. The poor boy was scared to death and couldn't understand what was wrong. Some Americans tried to help him, but their English was too rapid for the flight attendant. Soon almost everybody got involved, and multi-language phrases like “kusammak, you fucking cuda!” were flying all around the plane. "Don Alberto" and I got in the back row, opened another bottle, and tried to ignore it all. We landed in Tripoli, Tunis, Larnaka, and some other places, before landing in Moscow.

It was well below freezing there. The airport workers were paid by taxi drivers to delay unloading luggage from evening arrivals until the last bus for the city would leave. My new friend wasn't let through the customs because something was wrong with his passport, so I had to spend the night in the airport alone.

The first bus arrived the next morning before the money exchange office opened, so almost everybody had to go without a ticket. At the first stop a pack of ticket inspectors rushed in. They offered people who had no rubles to either pay the fine in dollars, or get arrested. But I wasn't going to part with the last six dollars I had, so I pretended I didn't speak Russian. It worked - I was so tanned that I didn't look like a native.

South America didn't exist anymore. I had to drag home my backpack, get a job, find money to proceed the films, and live on. But there was nothing to be afraid of. I'd seen the Andes and Amazonia, volcanoes and caves, waterfalls and glaciers, tortoises and whales, albatrosses and jaguars, Morpho butterflies and Cattleya orchids, condors and anacondas. A tiny sylph hummingbird drank from a feeder while perching on my finger. Even if I was to die the next day, I knew I could die in peace.

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