Among the most tragic of events in this world and our times are the deforestation and destruction of the world’s tropical rain forests, along with the conversion of the entire Amazon basin into temporary cattle ranching and soy bean plantations, South East Asia into margarine palms to tickle the well-being of health fanatics. And along with that cultures, languages, animals, and plants of immense significance for humanity and the well-being of the planet. It is an unbelievable erosion of capital, and a straight road to future devastation for the concerned countries. Just like we now also experience the demise of the oceans, and the loss of most natural biodiversity rich habitats already happened in North America, Europe, northern Asia, and much of Africa.
Fortunately, we have the stories of those who were there, and the future will be able to sense from their writings the irrational passion of fish collection and jungle exploration, and at the same time the close encounter with the meaning of life.
Iténez – River of Hope (English edition 2009) is the story of Amanda Bleher (1910-1991), a middle age, newly divorced woman in Frankfurt/Main, in the 1950s, running a pet business, earning her considerable reputation not least for importing snakes and crocodiles, a female Indiana Jones as e-jardim has it. The story focuses on her travel to Brazil in search of the discus fish (Symphysodon). Attempting to bring an American car from Germany, laden with four kids, pets, and all sorts of belongings, not least cosmetics, it is a road story with a lesser local vehicle of considerable inconvenience. Of course, there are no discus where she goes, heading for the Rio Iténez (Guaporé) on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Love, trust, money, belongings, and belief in humanity evaporate along the way. Reaching the old Jesuit mission Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade on the Iténez (Guaporé) River, there is considerable suffering in the tropical paradise, and with no money left, kids ill, and dubious friends failing, the dream of the Iténez has to be put back for realities for a while. Amanda eventually established a home and company near Rio, and travelled extensively afterwards, but this is the story you will want to read.
To a rational mind planning a field trip, these 277 pages of continuous impulsive re-planning on the way may be frustrating. Why is she taking the kids? Why this amount of cosmetics in the interior of Mato Grosso? Why not check out the taxonomic literature for Symphysodon localities (Amazon mainstream)? Why follow the one after the other jungle whacko so desperately? Nonetheless, this is a fascinating story of travelling in the rain forest in those days when there was forest in Mato Grosso. It is a woman’s story, and thus different from male itineraries. It does not obviously have a hero (or heroine), and it is very truthful of all those things that go wrong, all those decisions that were not so smart it turns out, that the other stories never tell. It is also a rare verdict of passion, for the animals, plants, the rain forest itself, and the search for a new existence far away from war-stricken Germany. Was Amanda Bleher a spy sent by the Germans to check out the almost-deserted Vila Bela as Brazilians at times seemed to think? Is this book her coded report back? Besides the elusive discus, Amanda Bleher was mainly interested in getting water plants for aquariums, and this book gives a vivid insight into the early days of exploration of the Amazon for aquarium fishes and plants.
Most of the history of exploration and travel is written by men. My bookshelves are laden with volumes by men discovering, exploring, and doing everything right. When I travel, it is never like that, it is always chaotic and frustrating all the time. The classical volumes of Ferreira, Humboldt and Bonpland, Castelnau, and Spix and von Martius, to mention the well-known, are faithful diaries, and there is much fact and information therein. But as literature they are boring.
There is one exceptional exception — Gordon MacCreagh’s (1886-1953) White Waters and Black (1926). It details about the Mulford Expedition 1921-1922, of six inexperienced scientists (Nathan E Pearson the ichthyologist) travelling from the highlands of Bolivia to Manaus and up the Rio Negro, with eight tons of luggage and no very clear mission. Well, the expeditioners as well as the luggage are reduced as the group proceeds, over two years’ time, and the bare truth and everything ridiculous and tragic is retold by the guide, MacCreagh, working under premises like this and worse:
The Minister of the Interior lays before me all his maps — wonderful charts showing a Yungas dotted with prosperous little towns. The Department of the Yungas, by the way, is the transandine sub-tropical and tropical jungle which, with the Department of the Beni, stretches away off to the far borders of Brazil.
“Who lives in these towns?” I ask the minister.
He is delightfully naïve about his ignorance. “Quien sabe? Perhaps Indians, perhaps fugitives from justice. At all events, they are people who pay no taxes.”
How, then, does he know that the towns are there?
He doesn’t. He shrugs with comical disgust and laughs.
“But, my good friend, I am not a maker of maps!”
I would not consider bringing 50 kg of oatmeal in glass jars on trail and river from La Paz to Manaus. But perhaps cooking pots, lanterns, if I bring an outboard motor I would make sure there were gasoline for it, and of course scientific equipment. In White Waters and Black, you can read more about what to take and not to take.
Women rarely go on expeditions, or they don’t write. Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (1822-1907) was an early exception, documenting the Thayer expedition to the Amazon (186-1867) led by her husband Louis Agassiz, but it is also a relatively dry itinerary interspersed with exclamative footnotes by Louis Agassiz, A Journey in Brazil (1868).
Much more I appreciated Lady with a Spear (1951) by Eugenie Clark, an autobiography full of passion for collecting fish, part of the story of the post war atom bomb testing in the Marianas, and also testimony to the importance of having an aquarium in every home with children.
A remarkable early explorer, the British Mary Kingsley (1862-1900), made two trips to West Africa in the late 19th Century, at a time when Europeans had less chances of surviving the diseases there. She came back to England, and came back with fishes as well, and wrote a book. In the introduction to Travels in West Africa (1897) she wrote:
To Dr. Günther, of the British Museum, I am deeply grateful for the kindness and interest he has always shown regarding all the specimens of natural history that I have been able to lay before him; the majority of which must have had very old tales to tell him. Yet his courtesy and attention gave me the thing a worker in any work most wants — the sense that the work was worth doing — and sent me back to work again with the knowledge that if these things interested a man like him, it was a more than sufficient reason for me to go on collecting them.
That is a very kind acknowledgment, and Mary must have been a very nice person, who also made headlines when defending Africans and African cultures against Christan demonisation. Mary collected fish in the Ogowe River, and has some species named after her in recognition of her contribution to ichthyology. She worked all alone and on her own expense. I find that remarkable, given the obvious hardships, the absence of cars, roads, airplanes, air-condition, and bottled water that present-day explorers make good use of. Travels in West Africa is old enough to be in the public domain and can be downloaded from various sources such as Google Books.
If you do not write down your story, it never happened.
All books here are available from Amazon and other Internet books shops, except Iténez – River of Hope, to be ordered from AquaPress. Image Sven Kullander, CC-BY-NC.