Extract from 'Up the Creek'

Late one afternoon on the Rio Teles Pires in 1981, Andrea Betella and I saw a house in the distance and quickened the pace of our paddling. It is customary in Amazonia to ask to spend the night at any house rather than sleep in the jungle, and you are unlikely to be refused.

There was a man taking his evening wash on the rough wooden jetty where two other canoes were moored, and with the self-control showed by all the Brazilian caboclos kept his face impassive, and refrained from staring as we approached out of nowhere and so obviously alien. He returned our greeting, and consented to us staying the night, asking us a few friendly questions about our trip and where we were from. He was missing his right hand, the forearm ending in an ugly stump.

We took what we needed from the canoe and followed him up the bank where some neat steps had been cut. We emerged into a big clearing with a large thatched hut at the far end, and headed towards it. The tinkling of a cow bell made us look around to see it attached to the neck of a playful, well-fed dog that leapt and frolicked around its master.

‘It stops the jaguars eating him,’ he explained, pretending to be stern with the creature. ‘Dogs are their favourite food.’

On the way across the clearing we passed a strange sight. A large plastic tarpaulin had been rigged up into a peculiar igloo-like construction that one would have to enter on hands and knees. Outside it, cooking his supper, was a rather scruffy man who barely looked up as we passed and returned our greetings with a grunt.

We entered the large hut and were very impressed with the cleanliness and order of the interior. A swept earth floor, sacks of provisions placed on trestles, possessions hanging from the rafters, and a gleaming collection of pots, pans and utensils around an earthenware oven. The place reinforced the impression we had of the man being a very capable individual, well-versed in jungle life and able to make himself comfortable in it. Little things like the jetty, the steps in the bank, the well-fed dog (most Amazonian dogs are scrap-fed curs) and his clean clothes and neat appearance, were all unusual in remote dwellings where men lived alone. We began to feel ashamed of our wild beards, tattered shorts and grimy fingernails.

Jorge insisted there was plenty of food already cooking for all, and soon we were tucking into a good curassow stew with rice and beans. I went to get our plastic container of booze from the canoe, and on the way back asked the other man if he’d like to join us for a drink. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘thank you’ coming as an afterthought, so I shrugged and left him staring glumly into the embers of his fire.

We spent a pleasant evening with our host, getting a bit drunk and chatting about our respective lives. He was employed by a Sao Paulo businessman to clear a fazenda. A few hundred metres away there was an airstrip, and every month or so the owner would fly in, bring pay and provisions, spend a day fishing and depart.

All the time we were talking I couldn’t help but stare at the stump and wonder at the missing right hand. It had obviously occurred a few years before because he had become so adept at life without it. For example he rolled cigarettes one-handed with ease. I vowed to ask him about it after another drink or two. Meanwhile I broached the subject of his strange companion. His face clouded for a moment, and I was concerned that I had offended him. However he shrugged, grinned ruefully, and began to talk.

‘Yes it must seem strange to you I suppose. Here are two men living a long way from any company, and yet I live here, and he lives over there in that……….construction,’ he said ironically, gesturing towards the glow with his stump.

‘A few months ago I was feeling a bit lonely so I asked the boss if he could find me another man to help. In fact I asked him to get me a woman, but he couldn’t find one who wanted to leave the city and live out here!’ He laughed pleasantly.

‘It’s difficult to believe now, but I was very, very pleased to see him. I’d been here by myself for over a year, and to have company at last was like a dream. He moved in here, I cooked and cleaned for him, and we talked and talked: or rather, I talked and talked.’

He sighed. ‘And yet slowly, my eyes cleared, and I saw him for what he is. A dirty, slovenly and lazy man. Not at work, mind you, I’ve no complaints on that score, but in personal habits and hygiene. He never washes, his clothes and hammock stink, he spits fish bones on the floor so every insect around invades the place. So after a time things began to get cold between us, and in the end I gave him a plastic sheet and told him to build another hut in the clearing. I was assuming I’d help him select some trees to cut for timber, and give him a hand building it, but he refused, and he rigged up that strange place that he has to enter like an animal. When the rains come he’ll be floundering in the mud.’

‘Do you talk at all now?’ Andrea asked.

‘Only about matters of work,’ he replied, ‘and then only the necessary. Sometimes at night I look across from here at him sitting over there, and I feel like calling him over. But I don’t.’

A bit later, after a discussion of the animals of the region, we finally got round to the subject of his hand. It emerged quite naturally in fact. He looked up as I was watching the dexterity with which he rolled a cigarette, and he grinned. ‘Now it’s easy to do, but at first it would all end up on the floor!’

‘It happened seven years ago when I was working in Rondonia, doing the same sort of work but for a different boss. I was out hunting one day a kilometre or two from my hut when I came to a place where a big tree had fallen across the path. It seemed easier to climb over it than to go round so I reached up over the trunk to pull myself over, and got bitten at the base of the thumb by a surucucu.’

We winced. Of all the snakes in the jungle, this was the one we feared most. The bushmaster. I could remember some facts I’d read about it. Growing to 4 metres long, it is a fairly slender snake with a rough skin of pale reddish-brown, which has dark brown or black diamond-shaped patches. It can vibrate its tail like a rattler, but having no rattle it only produces a warning buzz when in dry vegetation. It has fangs over 3 centimetres long, capable of penetrating clothing that would protect you against most other species, and injects a considerable amount of venom.

Once bitten, and a large amount of venom injected, you don’t stand much chance. The bitten limb will swell and blister. Sometimes the skin will become tight and shiny from the internal tension and even split open. You’d become faint and experience profuse cold sweat, the pulse would become rapid, feeble or frail. Bleeding would occur in lungs, heart, kidneys and brain, and you’d soon enter a coma or convulsions and die.

‘I knew I didn’t stand much chance,’ Jorge went on, ‘it had bitten me too deeply and I could tell from the burning pain that the poison was in there.’ He drew on his cigarette. ‘So I decided to cut my hand off, thinking that so long as I did it in the first seconds after the bite most of the venom would come off with it.’

We gasped, and he grinned. ‘Yes it was a tough thing to do. I didn’t have time to think it over, so I rested it against the tree trunk, put the machete in my left hand and chopped. Unfortunately, you know, I was right-handed and couldn’t do much with my left, and also the machete wasn’t as sharp as I would have liked. The first cut only half did it, I had to chop again, screaming with pain and thinking I was going to pass out before the job was done.’ He paused, staring at the fire.

‘But my problems weren’t over. I was still two kilometres from home, and at home there was no one to help. I tied my shirt around my arm up here until the blood stopped pumping and started to walk home. But I’d only got a few paces when I looked back and saw my hand lying there on the jungle floor, and it didn’t seem right to leave it there. So I picked it up and walked home – hand in hand, so to speak.’ He giggled, and we joined in, relieved at a touch of black comedy.

‘The pain was awful, but I made it home, and I knew I couldn’t leave the shirt tied around my arm much longer or the whole arm would die. So I had to do something that I now remember was worse than cutting it off. I heated a sheet of metal over the fire until it was red-hot, and then plunged the stump down on it and sizzled it closed.’ He sighed. ‘And that hurt, my God, how that hurt. And all the time the metal was heating I sat there staring at it, gulping rum, and knowing how much it was going to hurt.’

‘I then got into the canoe, which fortunately had an outboard motor, and travelled for three hours to the road, where a truck took me to the hospital, and I still had the severed hand wrapped in a cloth. I think they took it off me and buried it.’

Well, we’d got the story of the missing hand, and pretty soon we turned in for the night. You couldn’t really switch the conversation back to trivia after a tale like that, and we lay there for a long time in the darkness thinking about it. One thing was for sure – our admiration for Jorge was verging on awe.

The next morning we had breakfast with him and decided to be on our way. We thanked him gratefully, shook hands (left-handed) and departed.

We’d gone about a kilometre when we came across the scruffy man out fishing in his canoe. As we hadn’t been impressed with his cordiality the night before we planned to say goodbye and paddle on past, but he smiled pleasantly and called us over.

He seemed a different person, asking us a lot of questions about our trip and showing us the three big catfish he’d caught.

We chatted for half an hour, exchanging tobacco, and just before we left I made some comment about the terrible thing that had happened to Jorge’s hand.

‘Yes,’ the man replied, ‘that sawmill was a death trap. So many workers there had terrible accidents.’ We stared in amazement into his eyes expecting to see malice or deceit. They shone back at us clear and innocent, tinged with a bit of sadness at the cruelty of modern machinery.