The Kindness of Strangers
Busses zoom past us, jockeying through traffic congestion…about 25 busses per minute. Mare and I swelter in the Amazon sun which vaporizes the recent downpour.
We understand not a word of Portuguese. The sweat from our backpacks pulls our pants down. Finally, we board overcrowded bus #307. Stumbling through the turnstile, we crash into fellow passengers with our packs too many times. We hold on for dear life, as the driver guns the bus, and then slams the brakes two feet later in this impossible traffic. It’s rush hour in the Amazon, in Manaus, this city of 2 million people.
Sweat pours from my elbow onto the knee of the unfortunate fellow sitting under me. Mare and I laugh at each other, heads dripping as if we’re in a Bikram Yoga session. Darkness descends and we have no clue where to disembark. A young couple lucky enough to find a seat senses our discomfort, and gestures for us to place our backpacks between their legs. Ever try to take off a backpack from inside of a crock pot? It’s dangerous. What a relief to shed 50 pounds. Now we can feel the other moist bodies squeeze against ours.
I remember about three days ago, when we fly first class for the first time ever, (a free benefit of travel miles) reclining in the lounge with a blanket, the flight attendant serving us wine, cheese and fruit, as we relax in this fancy restaurant wearing booties on our feet. The pilot maneuvers through a river of clouds, about 25 feet from the ground, when he suddenly hits the throttle and jets straight back into the sky. I know that something is terribly wrong, but don’t care. I finally fly first class, and my life is complete… The pilot circles until the weather clears.
In Manaus, before visiting the opera house, we walk to Rio Negro, where we sit with an elderly man, who nibbles on quail eggs. We communicate with beers and smiles. Another man sits across from us, wearing a bandana and singing a slow song. Rain pours like Niagara Falls, banging on tin roofs sounding like a monster train approaching. The locals do not appear to get wet, and if we didn’t know better, we’d thing that they somehow dodge the raindrops.
We tour the opera house, “Teatro Amazonas,” with a group of British cruise ship travelers. One of them expresses envy of our independent style of travel. Opened in 1896, artists from Italy, France, and other parts of Europe worked with locals to create a semblance of civilization in the heart of the Amazon. We wear slippers over our shoes to slide across the hand carved multi-wooded floors, adorned by canvas paintings depicting the Amazon muses.
A jolt brings me back onto the bus…where we sweat embarrassingly excessive. A stranger gestures to Mare and says in broken English, “Come stand here.” His friend moves from a strategic position, near an open window. “I’m sorry for bad English,” Neto says.
“Your English is beautiful,” Mare responds. “Thank you so much.”
“Nobody here speaks English, so I was afraid to try with you.”
We learn that Neto tried to help one other English speaker recently, and cherishes the chance to practice the language. He comes to Manaus from the city of Fortaleza, for his job. He communicates to us about where to disembark, and tells the driver to remind us. He also explains that we need to walk overtop a bridge to get to our terminal. Neto saves us. The hardest part yet is moving through crammed bodies on the bus to the exit doors, toting packs.
The overnight bus to Boa Vista is sold out. After much confusion, we purchase tickets for the following night, from an annoyed clerk. We get a taste of how the many immigrants or visitors must feel in our home country. At least we can afford an air conditioned taxi back to our hotel in the historical section of Manaus, within view of the Teatro Amazonas. We hop into the shower, where water drips from the 220-volt wires that heat it, soothing us like a first class cabin.
The folks on the bus share their human spirit with us. Neto verbalizes that spirit, and I write about it. The next phase is to pass it along, and Mare’s first gesture is to help a table of Asian men, who sit next to us, order beer.