Thursday, November 15, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Rubber Boom and the Rubber Barons of the Iquitos Slave Trade (Part Two)

The Amazon river is the premier navigable river on earth, and to what purpose? The Amazon region itself has little to offer to the world of Modernity that can't be found nearer and better almost everywhere else, with the possible exceptions of scenery and exotic culture. There is so little of use in the Amazon that in Iquitos, for example, a rush to pave all the city streets results in a black pancake later over a dusty hardpan, there being so little gravel available in the region that the tarmac is soft to the point that on a warm day, and aren't they all, a motorcycle kickstand sinks into the pavement to the point the bike falls over onto the ground, digging even more pockmarks into what a day before was a pristine layer of glistening back for as far as the eye can see. There's not much here. The topsoil is so thin that agriculture is a menace to the land, once stripped off for crops, it being nothing more than fine yellow sand that would in short order turn into Sahara style desert. Forestry is less than what one finds in northern Europe, and the fine woods one desires for furniture is better found in Asia. Bananas are abundant in Ecuador, but moreso in Central America and Africa, and better to eat there. The Amazon has, in short, little to recommend to the world at large. The Amazon is amazing, indeed, but it really doesn't go anywhere. For a short period over 100 years ago the Amazon was the one place on earth to find latex that could be used as finished rubber, for which the world has great interest and demand. That boom burst quickly, leaving the local left to sink back to obscurity and the short and brutish life of primitives without the benefits of Modernity to keep them alive long enough to join the parade of progress, such as it turns out to be. That obscurity and neglect by the outside world has ended recently with the discovery of oil and particularly with the rise of working-class tourism. Now, the very fact that the Amazon has so little to offer is the great draw: there is little here but nature and a people almost uncorrupted by Modernity's downsides. And with ubiquitous plastic, who misses rubber anyway? But for almost 25 years rubber put Iquitos, among other cities in the Amazon, on the world map. Back then, 20,000 people lived in the city, and it was “Somewhere!”

Absolutely must-see site for Mamore/Madeira.

The Amazonian rubber boom of 1879 to 1912, and a revival during the Second World War from 1942 to 1945, “facilitat[ed] a large expansion of colonization, attracting wealth and causing cultural and social transformations, [in] Iquitos in the Peruvian department of Loreto, for example.”

The rubber boom and the associated need for a large workforce had a significant negative effect on the indigenous population across Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. As rubber plantations grew, labor shortages increased. The owners of the plantations or rubber barons were rich, but those who collected the rubber made very little as a large amount of rubber was needed to be profitable. The rubber barons rounded up all the Indians and forced them to tap rubber out of the trees. One plantation started with 50,000 Indians and when discovered of the killings, only 8,000 were still alive. Slavery and gross human rights abuses were widespread, and in some areas 90% of the Indian population was wiped out. These rubber plantations ... declined as rubber plantations in Southeast Asia became more effective. [1]

One can still find pre-Columbian people in some remote areas around Iquitos, itself fairly remote in real terms. Many of those living in the jungle are descendants of refugees from the Rubber Baron slave trade. Now, slowly, even the most isolated people are coming into contact with civilization proper. There is one group of natives far into the deeps who don't wear clothing other than for ceremonial purposes, and who, with a friend of mine, went once to a tiny village in Ecuador, he having bought them track suits for their arrival in the “city.” the older men panicked at their first sight of ta mototaxi, and they wanted to return immediately to their jungle homes; but the young men were captivated by the promise of so much wonder so available, if only they could grasp how it's all got. This, too, must have been the lure of those 100 years ago who were given guns and machetes for raw rubber. It was not a fair trade. The story of the Rubber Boom is one of horror. But it is also a matter of development in the world of all men, not just those few so directly affected as were the Rubber Barons and the natives. The story of the Rubber Boom tells of how men can enter the jungle in search of the promise of the world and come to lose everything they could have had by staying away. In many ways, and in many individual cases, the Rubber Boom is simply the Conradian tale of “The horror, the horror.” As depressing and oft times as enraging as is the history of the Rubber Boom in the Amazon, it is also a story of man confronting his worst self and overcoming it. It is a tale too of laying the groundwork for those who come, those who step out of the jungle and into the modern, if only to the mudflats of Belen's Freetown section of extreme poverty and hellish life. There is hope for a future. It rests on rubber. The hope of those who will come in time to live lives of peace and plenty is based on the lives and deaths of those who were brutalised in the rush to riches that drove some men mad.

The first rubber boom, 1879–1912

Historically the Amazon held little attraction for European and American investors and entrepreneurs, there being too little mineral wealth, oil not being marketable, and gems not yet being discovered. For most of the post-Columbian era there was no draw to the jungle. But that changed with the advent and expansion of the Industrial Revolution, and in particular with the ubiquity of Henry Ford's working man's automobile. Suddenly almost everyone could have a car of his own, and everyone needed at least four rubber tyres for them. “In the 1930s, Henry Ford, the United States automobile pioneer, undertook the cultivation of rubber trees in the Amazon region, and established the city of Fordlândia, in the west part of Pará state, specifically for this end, but the initiative was not successful because the plantation suffered from a leaf pest.”

Rubber was the seed of Iquitos, Peru.

In 1855, over 2,100 tons was exported from the Amazon; a figure which reached 10,000 tons by 1879.

  • Once the Industrial Revolution got into full swing in Europe and the United States, rubber production boomed.
  • For almost four decades, the Amazon rainforest enjoyed a monopoly position in rubber. Overnight, a class of colonial rubber barons emerged who used their new wealth to build elegant mansions in the rainforest. Enjoying the good life, they threw money around, and left the unlikely civic legacy of Teatro Amazonas, a salmon-pink 640-seat opera house in the port town of Manaus, Brazil on the banks of the Rio Negro.
  • As quickly as the Amazon had become an industrial powerhouse, the international market for its product began to evaporate. Though the Brazilian government instituted capital punishment as the penalty for exporting the rubber tree or its seeds, progress could not be stopped. English explorer, Henry Wickham, smuggled the prized seeds out of Brazil in 1876 and brought them back to London where they were germinated in the greenhouses of the Kew Gardens. Transported to the British colonies of the Far East, the imported seeds allowed Ceylon to get a foothold in the rubber business, filling its defunct coffee plantations with the new crop. The Amazon's disorganized growing conditions in the wild and government regulatory mismanagement proved no contest for the systematic growing techniques of its Malaysian competitors. Plantation-style propagation of the rubber tree species failed in the Amazon due to endemic leaf blight, but other climates proved more hospitable, and over the next two decades, plantations spread across Asia.
  • Amazonian production reached its peak in 1912 when Brazil's export of crude rubber topped 41,000 tons. By 1919, annual world production had reached 350,000 tons. The burgeoning automotive industry created an insatiable demand for rubber that spawned more innovation. Synthetic rubber using petroleum was perfected in the 1940s, dealing Amazonian rubber its final blow. Though the industry was briefly invigorated during World War II by the decimation of the Asian rubber industry and increased US demand, the revival was short-live.

As the rubber industry grew, Amazonian cities such as Iquitos, Peru, grew rapidly as well, calling forth adventurers such as the brutal Julio Cesar Arana and the real life version of German filmmaker Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, [see next installment] The rubber trade even created a short-lived Amazonian railroad, soon to be reprised in Peru.

Fortunes were made and lost, and cities rose in the Amazon jungle. So too did the Madeira Mamore Railway, “known as the 'Devil's Railroad' ... having caused the death of around six thousand workers (in legends said to be one dead worker per railroad tie...) The construction of the railroad began in 1907 ... and was one of the most significant episodes in the history of the … Amazon, revealing the clear attempt to integrate it into the global marketplace via the commercialization of rubber. On April 30, 1912, the final stretch of the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad was completed. The occasion was commemorated by the arrival of the first train to the city of Guajará-Mirim, founded on that same day.

But the destiny of the railroad that was constructed with the principal purpose of transporting rubber and other products from the Amazon region, both in Bolivia and Brazil, to the Atlantic ports, and which came at a high human cost, was the worst possible.
First, the price of latex fell precipitously in the world market, making the trade of rubber from the Amazon unviable. Also, the transport of products that could have been transported by the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad were taken by two other railroads, one in Chile and the other in Argentina, and the Panama Canal, which became active on August 15, 1914.
Added to this, the natural factor, the Amazon forest, with its high level of rainfall, destroyed entire stretches of the rails, leveled ground, and bridges, reclaiming a large part of the way that people had insisted on clearing to construct the railroad.

The railroad was partially taken out of service in the 1930s and completely in 1972.... Today, from a total of 364 km of length of track, about seven remain in active use, used for tourist purposes.
I opted for eight days on a "cargo" boat.

[T]he Madeira–Mamoré Railroad, finished in 1912, arrived too late. The Amazon was already losing primacy in rubber production due to rubber trees planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and tropical Africa. These rubber trees were planted from seeds that Henry Wickham had smuggled out of Brazil in 1876.[4] These plantations were able to produce latex with greater efficiency and productivity. Consequently, with lower costs and a lower final price, the British Empire assumed control of the world rubber market.

The natural rubber from the Amazon [was] prohibitively expensive ... in the world market, having as an immediate effect the stagnation of the regional economy. The rubber crisis grew worse due to the lack of entrepreneurial or governmental vision in finding alternatives which would make possible regional development, and had as an immediate consequence the stagnation of the cities.

The second rubber boom, 1942-1945
The Amazon again experienced a rubber boom during the Second World War when Japan dominated the eastern Pacific Ocean from the beginning of 1942 and invaded Malaysia, [and] the rubber plantations there came under [Japanese] control, which resulted in the loss of 97% of Asiatic rubber production [to the non-Japanese market.]

A railroad built to take a failed product through the Amazon jungle to a river to nowhere. The rubber seeds of destruction of many Amazonian people were smuggled to better lands, and the dead who made the boom possible for rubber to evolve today into extraordinary polymers rest unknown in the jungles with a rusted railroad one can barely find by looking. Such was the time and the place, and one should no more complain about it now than one complains that French colonists brought slaves from Barbados to Virginian to work cotton plantations that gave way in time to polyester. Though the birth of Modernity is often soaked in blood and tears there is tomorrow and tomorrow, our futures brighter because of the sacrifices, unknown and unwanted, of others who came before us. We can't change anything then, but we can at least be grateful to those who bring us our good lives now. 

I'm grateful, in spite of being particularly sick at this time. Will return soon with another installment on the Rubber Boom, looking at some of the individuals who made it what it was, good and bad. 

  A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Rubber Boom and the Rubber Barons of the Amazon Slave Trade (Part One)

Iquitos, Peru is the city it is today because of its previous short-lived glory as a world class centre of the rubber boom circa 1879–1912. Today, Iquitos is a resurrected city on the banks of the Amazon reliant on oil, forestry, and, in large part, tourism centred on the drug trade, i.e. on ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant used by shamans in the jungle to attune themselves with the gods in the hope of enlightenment concerning illnesses of patients they would then hope to cure. Iquitos, a city bounced back, as it were, it is a city on the move.

From oft times frightening automobile trips in a mototaxi to hippie drug trips on ayahuasca, Iquitos is about movement. It is about movement from the jungle in search of work; the historical movement from Europe to the jungle in search of cash money; the current movement from Modernity to the jungle city in search “enlightenment” of some sort. This movement of people into contact with disparate lives and cultures brings the good as well as the bad to a sometimes universal good, sometimes to a universal evil; this movement brings a relatively recent freedom-- via car tyres-- from the “tyranny of distance,” as British historian Paul Johnson writes in Modern Times1. ["The term was invented to describe Australia in the age of sail"*]; and this movement brings us to outright slavery in the rubber plantations from where the rubber was drawn; and now, cultural decay and flight from Modernity in pursuit of Gnostic wisdom at the expense of the binding of the communion of souls that is our better nature. Movement. Iquitos was and is in its small way significant to the rapidly changing world at large.


Iquitos is “the only [city] in Amazonia to have named a street after Charles - Marie de La Condamine....”

That would interest us because?
Charles Marie de La Condamine (B. 1701 – D. 1774) was a French explorer, geographer, and mathematician. He spent ten years in present-day Ecuador measuring the length of a degree latitude at the equator and preparing the first map of the Amazon region based on astronomical observations.
On 16 May 1735, La Condamine sailed from La Rochelle accompanied by Godin, Bouguer, and botanist Jussieu. ... His associations with his principals were unhappy ... and finally La Condamine [went to] Quito, Ecuado, ... becoming the first Westerner to encounter  rubber. ...
Maurice Quentin de la Tour (French, 1704–1788). Portrait of Charles Marie de la Condamine, 1753. Pastel on paper. Frick Art & Historical Center 1970.40.

As I understand it, we use the word "condom" in his honor. With that bit of trivia thrown in for free, what follows must be a trick question.

What was the first practical use of rubber?

In England, Joseph Priestley, best known for his discovery of oxygen, noted that pencil marks could be "rubbed out" by the substance. From this early use, rubber derived its name.
Joseph Priestly

 The literate world is probably more grateful to Priestly for inventing the eraser than to whomever invented the condom. I know that, as a writer, I am; and the reader would be too if only he knew....

What discovery marked the beginning of modern rubber technology?
Prior to 1839, the properties of rubber were dictated by the surrounding temperature. During the hot summer, rubber was sticky and malleable, while it became hard and brittle in the colder months. This was finally remedied by the discovery of the process of vulcanization. A mixture of rubber, white lead and sulphur was dropped accidentally upon a hot stove. When it was removed, the material was no longer affected by temperature. Despite stretching, it always returned to its original shape. This process of vulcanization made it possible to use rubber in raincoats, overshoes, and eventually many other products, including tires.

Today more than 90% of the natural rubber supply comes from Southeast Asia. As rubber trees require a hot, damp climate, they grow only in the "Rubber Belt," an equatorial zone that stretches around the world. In 1876, the English, in recognition of the difficulties of securing quality rubber from the jungle, hit upon the idea of growing rubber on plantations. From their efforts, the cultivated rubber tree plantations of Southeast Asia and Africa have developed.

What accelerated the development of synthetic rubber?
The United States was cut off from virtually all of its sources of natural rubber in the Pacific during World War II. In order to meet the nation's needs for this vital material, the government built synthetic rubber plants and the industry operated them. Synthetic rubber production jumped from 8,000 tons in 1941 to 820,000 tons in 1945. After the war, the government sold the plants to the industry.

The story of Iquitos rests on a foundation of rubber, as it were.
According Genaro Herrera, in 1866, Iquitos had a population of 648 people. For 1876, again the same author reports a population of 1,475 inhabitants.
In 1903, in the middle of the rubber boom, Iquitos had 9,438 inhabitants (census of Benito Lords), of which 542 were foreigners, most of them were from Spain (95), Brazil  (80), China (74), Portugal (64) and other nations.

Today the city of Iquitos, Peru has a population of close to half a million people. Iquitos owes its existence to the Rubber Boom of 1879-1912, but the rubber boom burst and the city rose again of its own accord. Still, the city has its rubber legacy that lives on in many ways, from period architecture to the mototaxi tyres to flip-flops I wear while walking around the city to sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Condamine street having coffee by the river. But the story of rubber itself would have been little to any of us were it not for:

Charles Goodyear (B. 1800 – D. 1860) an American inventor who, in 1839, invented the "vulcanising" treatment for rubber.
Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process accidentally after five years of searching for a more stable rubber.
While imprisoned for debt due to failed experiements he mixed magnesia with indian rubber "which produced a beautiful white compound and appeared to take away the stickiness."

Next he "compounded rubber with magnesia and then boiled it in quicklime and water. ... At once it was noticed abroad that he had treated India rubber to lose its stickiness, and he received international acclamation." But this too was a failure. "Exposure to harsh chemicals adversely affected his health, and once nearly suffocated by gas generated in his laboratory. Goodyear survived, but the resulting fever came close to taking his life."

Getty Images
Some say (Damian Francis Mullin, circa Feb 1865) that Goodyear experimented  material over an open flame.... Other sources claim that Goodyear accidentally spilled the rubber mixture on a hot stove. The key discovery was that heating natural rubber and sulfur created vulcanized rubber. This process was eventually refined to become the vulcanizing process.

The inventor himself admitted that the discovery of the vulcanizing process was not the direct result of the scientific method, but claims that it was not accidental. Rather it was the result of application and observation.

Now that Goodyear was sure that he had the key to the intricate puzzle that he had worked over for so many years, he began at once to tell his friends about it and to try to secure capital, but they had listened so many times that his efforts were futile.
 Goodyear died July 1, 1860 at the age of 59 in New York City. He is buried in New Haven, Conn. In 1898, The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. was founded and named after Goodyear. On February 8, 1976, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Rubber boots and rain coats are one thing, but the rubber industry became significant because of the automobile industry's need for tyres. Thus, when in 1908 Henry Ford created the first personal automobile affordable to working class people, automobiles that required rubber tyres, the demand for rubber increased beyond all previous measure. It also spelt the doom of the Amazon rubber boom, though this was not clear at the time. The need for rubber meant the rubber monopoly in the Amazon would be broken, and when that happened, the boom at Iquitos went bust. 
Henry Ford did not invent the car; he produced an automobile that was within the economic reach of the average American. While other manufacturers were content to target a market of the well-to-do, Ford developed a design and a method of manufacture that steadily reduced the cost of the Model T. Instead of pocketing the profits; Ford lowered the price of his car. As a result, Ford Motors sold more cars and steadily increased its earnings - transforming the automobile from a luxury toy to a mainstay of American society. The Model T made its debut in 1908 with a purchase price of $825.00. Over ten thousand were sold in its first year, establishing a new record. Four years later the price dropped to $575.00 and sales soared. By 1914, Ford could claim a 48% share of the automobile market.

Iquitos Model A

The rubber for those early car tyres came in great volume from Iquitos, Peru, as well as other parts of the Amazon, attracting adventurous people from Europe and locally to harvest the rubber and the fortunes to be made therefrom. Some such adventurers left behind not only home and family but all human decency in their pursuit of money. They enslaved the local population as rubber plantation workers. One such man in Iquitos was Julio César Arana del Águila, (1864–1952) “a Peruvian entrepreneur and politician." We'll look in some detail at Arana in a further installment on The Rubber Baron.
An all too true portrayal of a Rubber Baron monster
A major figure in the rubber industry in the upper Amazon basin, he is probably best known in the English-speaking world through Walt Hardenburg's 1909 articles in the British magazine Truth.... accusing [Arana] of practices that amounted to a terroristic reign of slavery over the natives of the region. His company, the Peruvian Amazon Company [also called the Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Co.] 

Arana's Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Co. "was a rubber boom company that operated in Peru in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was investigated by a [British parliamentary] commission in 1910...” and was out of business by 1913."

The Amazon rubber boom collapsed, as did the fortunes of the greedy; but Iquitos survived, and today is a tourist destination of immense attraction and Amazonian charm-- even for those whose trips are nothing to do with drug taking. Many of the more beautiful buildings in the city center are houses of the wealthy rubber barons of the last centuries. Much of the city itself is due to their energy and investment and even their brutality. The city rises from the lowest mudflats of Belen district to the heights of the Iron Building, for example, a large mansion created by Gustave Eiffel and shipped in pieces to adorn the city to this day.  

Casa de Fierro (Spanish for the Iron House) was designed by Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower, ''who built the original house in Paris for an exhibition of 1878.'' 

Rubber made this city, but today the Rubber Boom is a just memory, the city itself having moved on long since. The roots in rubber are here and they hold together the past and the current in this city by the river. We'll look more closely at the Rubber Boom soon. 

1. Paul Johnson, Modern Times Revised Edition: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York: Perennial Classics; 2001. C. p.800+.

* Of all the incredible coincidences, I just now read the very phrase, "tyranny of distance" and find Johnson did not coin it. Cf. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History (1966)
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Back to School (Part Two)

To read the full story about teaching school around Iquitos, please turn to the following link:


We walked down through the pale yellow dust settled thin on the cement block sidewalk between low white washed particle board buildings with bare tin roofs, mostly windowless places, open holes without glass or screens, sometimes a sheet of cotton to keep out lazy bugs and casual glances of passers by. The sun was high and the day was heating up quickly, the verdant lowlands spreading to the horizon from where we stood, all of life around contained in one panoramic shot of water and green, the whole of a lifetime of little to do but live.

Nature is mindless to a degree I find impossible to comprehend, as if it has to be something more than a force without will, that Nature is something real and true rather than empty flux of coming and going. But there is nothing. Nature is idiocy. Man and creatures make of it as they can, and some men can't make too much of it because their inability to understand the complexities of other men drives them away from the frustrations of incomprehension. I know this feeling well now when my Spanish fails me and I just want to go away and be alone with my own thoughts, not desperately searching for a word I just don't have, a word I just don't get, and a greater meaning that eludes me entirely, a painful silence descending as I search and try to find some way to express myself, and then I give up and go away and consult my dictionary and wish I could remember all that I should. There is too much. The language is too big for me to take it in all at once in its entirety. I want to go away and sit alone and drink coffee and write my own words as I understand and feel comfortable using. I don't care if others don't understand me. I know. I can be alone. I know that kind of man, having seen him in the forest many a time as I was fishing or running with my dog chasing birds to shoot down dead from the sky, my dinner a trout or a grouse wrapped in tin foil and cooked on a pine wood campfire, my dog eating a snake, sniffing at berries and looking up at me in wonder, wondering why I was making such a pointless offer. The man would come down the trail on horseback, absorbed in nature, in nothing at all but a self-contained hum of breath and heartbeat, aware of birds and beasts who are not at all his concern, his attention focused on guiding his horse down a path, keeping his place in the saddle, avoiding branches, wiping away sweat from his face, pausing sometimes for water. Ever day I would meet that man in one of his hundred variations. Meeting him he might grunt, might say “Howdy,” and might not even look at my dog and me as he rode past. If he were jumped by a mountain lion as he rode under a high limb and died before he hit the ground, fangs biting through his neck and killing him almost instantly, it might be weeks till someone passing by noticed the man's horse starving on some small and tidy ranch overgrown out front with weeds, no smoke in the chimney, a banging shutter, a quiet that shouts out, “Death lives here alone.” 

There are no words, and there is no will. There is no life to share with others in passing, just the endless round of coming and going. Life is simple, the needs from nature being few, the life of men too difficult for those who cannot grasp the man of words who talks and talks and talks and makes sounds that might have meaning but that exceed ones ability to comprehend. There is little one must actually know: the edible and inedible, the poisonous and the medicinal; there is the breeding season and the hatching times; the hot and the cold, wet and the dry; there is birth and death. One might skin and sew and mend, one might plant and cut and store; others might make and one might make a different thing to trade; but there is little one must know, and it seldom includes the periodic table or the organic chemistry of sedimentary rock. One knows the forest and the river, the sky and soil. One has a hundred simple chores a day to do; and then there is family and neighbours to placate or murder. Life is simple. If the sugar cane is pressed and the chickens are fed and the rice is laid out to dry under the sun on the hardpack, then the kids in the village can go to the school house because the stranger is there and will keep the kids busy for a few hours while the adults do the heavy work of the daylight hours. This requires very few words. Without words, one can live ones life in peace without the intrusion of others disrupting the tranquility of rhythmic flow of time unending. One can float in the small currents of sensation, shifting when ones butt is sore, stretch when ones legs are cramped, burp and fart and eat and drink and snarl when another comes too close and disrupts the gentle wind blowing through ones hair. Later perhaps, the boat will come with a palate of Inca Cola. Or maybe not. For now the children are in the care of the lady from beyond. One can allow ones mind to empty of the concerns of the day till there is nothing left but the soothing rhythms of mending, weaving, breathing, and other small automatics of living. The mind of kaif, the mind at one with nature. There are no words. 

The village has a school house, a big empty room with little of interest to the mind beyond a few picnic tables lined up together to seat children as they learn not much of anything at all of a day in class. The regular teachers have been on strike for a year or so demanding that they get paid, and seemingly so far that has not happened. Paula comes to the village and sets up her bag of stuff on the table where the kids sit patiently waiting for whatever she will bring out for them to use to create-- this day, crayon pictures on scrap paper. We call it art class. The girls are good, while the boys would rather be doings something masculine, would rather be running around and pushing each other. But they sit and behave like children in a classroom, preparing for life in a 19th century factory or an early Modern office. If ever they leave the village at all they will probably land first at Belen where they will find themselves cramped in hard quarters and will have to find their ways in a world of words. Paula gives a lesson in French. Educating the village children.

I draw no conclusions. I am only here to observe.  Comme ci, comme ça.
I see children in the morning. I wonder then if Bishop Berkley is right that they exist only as projections of the Mind of God, manifest by divine Will, existing when I turn my head only because of the continuous Will of the Lord. When I turn my head, really, the children cease to exist? If there is no Word, then where are the children? They cannot be real. I am the universe alone.

I know the universe better than the children of the village. I know the universe is coming to their place in the jungle and that the oilmen are on the march, that the huge black drums in the selva will pound the people into the fine yellow dust of the stripped-off land if such is the Will of Oil. But boys will be boys and girls will be girls, and life will continue regardless of will.

Then it's my turn to teach, to perform, to do my magic in bringing some light from the Modern to the children of the selva. Paula passes out sheets of scrap paper to each child and the lads, and I demonstrate step by step how to make a two piece paper aeroplane that my grandfather showed my how to make when I was a boy and he was as old then as I am now, he having learned as a boy what I show the children this day in the jungle. We fold over papers and tear off one end to use later as tails and continue to fold till we have an aeroplane body and the insert tail so our paper machines can fly across the broad room and then outside as we take a break from this creation. When too many planes land on the rooftops, one clever boy ties a string his to his and uses it like a kite. He keeps his plane all day. Perhaps in time he will come to oppress the masses with his brilliance, knowing how to attach himself to the words of the Modernist game. 
I show the girls a card trick, “Pick a card, any card, and I will tell you what you've picked without having looked.” The girls are highly impressed at my abilities in card magic, but there's a point to make here, and I show them how to do what I have done. And more, I tell them that they can use this trick on boys, to show the boys forever that a girl always knows what a boy is thinking, though the reverse is never true. This receives no laughter or knowing nods. I am the magic flier, and I know many tricks. 
Strange, and too strange, and so strange it's highly disturbing to us, one of the lads withdraws from us and goes outside and falls into a narcoleptic fit from which he will not rise even from the blows and kicks of his friend who relies on him for life in a foreign nation where he doesn't know the language. We drag the lad to his feet, and he stumbles wildly and collapse again in the dust where he sleeps. Over and over his friend drags him up and hauls him to the next stop across the village as the children drift away from the short day that has been class time in the jungle. “What's the matter with you?” one lad says in desperation as the other lays on the ground asleep. “None of us got any sleep last night. You can't be that tired.” These words are lost on the sleeper withdrawn from the world suddenly. He continues to lay alone in the dirt. We stand over him and wonder. Again his friend hauls him up and drags him further, this time up a hill and into the forest where we go to rest and sit with children who have followed us from the school house, down a jungle path and for me under a rail that causes me some pain in my leg as I try to bend and navigate to the other side. I find myself held by the hands, a boy on one side, a girl on the other, holding my hands to steady me and lead me down the path to safety. The other staggers wildly and collapses again, falling heavy onto a wooden plank under a grass shelter where a woman crushes cane and shows off for a couple of creepy tourist girls who pose for photos and bray in German about the charm of such a life of simplicity. Bacher, fleisher, wasser, feuer. Paula knows and wisely ignores them. The American lad leans over to me and quietly asks, he not knowing a word of German, what it is about these women that makes them so immediately and vividly creepy. I open my mouth to speak, but I know too many words and have too much to say, so I say, “I don't know.” The lad says there is something about the women that is wrong from the start. But for me they have disappeared, and in their place are the children who have come from nowhere to fill my vision and my mind and my life.

I don't have any kids, and over the course of my life I can't recall any of my friends having kids till long after my divorce my wife had one child with the husband who shot his head in the garage for Christmas and died. 
Here in the world outside the heart of Modernity I see children everywhere I look and I am captured by the sight. The babies smile at me as if I am some friend they're happy to see. None of them seems to be out to shoot me as I walk down the boulevard to the military compound where I will stay for a while to do some light work in a war zone that has left the civilian population on the edge of starvation. None of these babies is trying to kill me. None of the children are trying to murder me. Nor are their parents who see the look of wonder on my face and mistake me for some man who is happy to see their babies smiling. I am indeed a man happy to see such happy babies, but my happiness is polluted with a rage against my own life and times and the ugly, murderous Freak Show that has wiped out babies for generations. The children won't let go of my hands as they lead me along behind Paula and the American lad, the other having been left behind in his solitude asleep in the blazing heat and burning sun that he refuses to move away from. Children hold my hands as we walk, and I have no words to describe how filled with joy I am that such things can walk in the world and do no harm.

The kids held onto me all the day as we walked around the village and through the jungle, as we left the lad asleep in the baking sun, as we saw giant iguanas crashing through the jungle below our perch at a resort's posh gazebo. The kids followed us into the village when we went to eat, they too shy to take any food from us. We'll be forgotten soon, and the kids will grow up in the village and marry and settle in to adult lives and will probably not learn a great deal about the greater world in which men like me have a place of sometimes honor and sometimes horror. As the drums of Modernity pound a pace the children might flee deeper into the jungle to escape the sacrifice of their virgin lives. Or they might become like me, wanderers in search of a home away from the madness of a world without babies.

There are no words....

 A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book: