March 22, 2007

Amazon River Boat Beggars
Rio Amazonas, Brazil

I awoke in my hammock at dawn this morning, and after eating a piece of bread (and passing on the cup of coffee) that represented my boat breakfast, I made my way to the top deck.

We were floating up the Amazon River at a good clip, the jungle moving past faster than expected. Hummm, what's this? How delightful! I thought to myself, as I noticed a small family in a wooden canoe navigating the wake our boat was leaving. My gaze shifted forward, beyond the bow, and in the distance I saw even more little canoes.

We passed the group as the Rodrigues Alves V motored through the brown river water. I immediately noticed the canoes were only being occupied/paddled by women and children. Almost all of the children were doing this sort of heartless waving with both their hands (in the wrong manner), bending their open palms up and down at the wrist instead of side to side. It was like watching a group of aliens trying to emulate a hand gesture they didn't quite understand.

What were they doing out here? I honestly couldn't figure it out. Their craft were totally empty, save for some kids and a bowl used to scoop excess water out. They weren't crossing to the other side of the river after we passed, instead just returning to a spot closer to their little homes on the riverbank. They had nothing to sell. They had no fishing nets. They weren't doing anything of particular value—just paddling towards the boat from their spot as it approached.

I was chalking it up to one of those mysteries of the Amazon that I'd never quite understand. I assumed they were waiting in the early morning hour for men to return with nets full of fish that they'd deposit with their families, who would return back to the hut with the morning's catch. They were probably paddling towards the boat as it passed because head-on is the proper way to take the wave we were leaving in our wake.

Well, was I wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I was looking at my first exposure to new from of begging—Amazon River boat begging.

We kept passing such canoes all morning, and it wasn't until we pulled up to a larger port to take on/drop off passengers that all became clear. The simple act of a plastic bag thrown overboard from a deck below me and it being scooped up by a woman in a canoe was all that it took. They were swarming the boats, looking for pity from the occupiants—looking for a handout.

Hiding the donation

They would quickly snatch up a parcel thrown to them (I only saw three tossed), and conceal it under a piece of wood behind the aft paddler—creating the illusion that there was nothing in the canoe, or that nothing had been given to them.

I was chatting with a Brazilian fellow (in mediocre Spanish + my 20 known words of Portuguese), and got around to the topic of the canoe folk. I asked what people were occasionally tossing to them in the plastic bags. Food, I questioned. Food and clothes, the man replied.

This was a new mode for me (although a very familiar practice that I deal with daily), and feel a little silly for not having figured it out sooner. I suppose my ignorance coupled with my continued belief in an honest day's work still conflicts with the reality of the world. Both concepts have changed much in my head after traveling through Latin America for a prolonged period of time. I am wiser because of it.

Another lesson in life taught—I'm still learning every day.

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.