For a short period in Brasil, I became a parent, sharing the role with another mother and father. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were a little confused, so I shall provide some contextual background to the ellipsis that we shall rest on for now.
My last entry was in Colombia, from the paradisiacal enchanted woods near San Gil where seismic shifts were experienced and positive transformations that had been inexorably progressing towards acceptable truths have become established realities. In short, the Amazon’s medicinal plants and the deeply inspiring community in which I became a part of provided me with the strength and conviction that I had been seeking for an extensive epoch: to live a life in which I make decisions that are nourishing and enriching. For now, as the fluidity of life is an axiom not necessary of great explanation, alcohol and meat have no place on my table. A concomitant life-long project, in which the principles of patience, acceptance and tolerance form the basis of my paradigmatic purview, has also commenced. As a political activist and human rights student who has spent several years enveloped in anger and unease towards the unnecessary injustices in the world, repositioning myself along these new concepts will inevitably require time.
Leaving the woods with newfound pearls of wisdom and a heart filled to the brim with the immense happiness at the potentiality of humanity to be kind rather than power-hungry, corrupt and violent, I headed via Bogota to Leticia, a small town in the Amazon bordering Peru and Brasil. On the plane, fate introduced me to Nelly, a lady who worked in the Sport and Recreation Department of the Colombian Government. She kindly organised a small yet sufficient room in the same hotel as her, which was greatly received, as I had not made any arrangements in Leticia and of course, for those who are now beginning to know me well, had made no plans.
Last Christmas, in a large farmhouse in Wales near a town whose name is totally unpronounceable, a very close friend of the family sat me down and gave me the kind of advice that if my mum had been alive would have come from her own lips. The conversation started like this:
So Layla, how are you going to position yourself politically in the Americas?
Ummm…I hadn’t even thought about it to be honest. Why?
My advice to you would be to shut up. It would be better to conduct yourself quietly; don’t go to protests; you are studying Spanish, and you are not a human rights activist; and don’t go confronting power. Just listen to people, formulate your thoughts in your head, and keep your opinions to yourself.
And why is that? You know that is in complete contradistinction to my personality. I was raised to challenge. You and mum took me to protests when I was in a nappy. I was shouting about some woman called Maggie that everyone seemed to hate before I could even walk.
In the countries you are going to, people like you are disappeared and killed, so please, just keep quiet.
Until lunch with Nelly in Leticia, I had done precisely what I had been advised to do. I hadn’t shut up entirely, but I had certainly been very cautious as to whom I had engaged with any kind of political conversation with. However, for some reason, I decided that the floodgates would open with my first proper conversation with a member of the Colombian Government. My intuition told me that I would be absolutely fine, and I literally couldn’t stop myself. We discussed some fairly basic and non-confrontational issues, as I didn’t completely lose my head, such as education systems and their maintenance of ignorance thus consolidation of power structures; the need for the government to attack the problem of litter through awareness raising coupled with a robust rubbish collection system; the gross inequality between the haves and the have-nots in Colombia which necessitated an overhaul of land ownership and property rights. And the conversation went on. Now that I write this, there is nothing non-confrontational about it!
The next day, we popped into Brasil, through a porous border, to collect around fifty indigenous people from communities along the Amazon River. Nelly was in Leticia as the government had organised a gathering of Amazonian peoples from Brasil, Peru and Colombia to share their performances, stories and music with a view to their preservation and an awareness and understanding of each other’s differing cultures and modes of expression. The irony being that many of these tribes are forgotten throughout the rest of the year, not by Nelly, but by the governments that do little to protect and respect their rights. I’d let that comment slip whilst boarding the plane, before she told me she worked for the government. Without having previously read a library of books and not having a multitude of translators at hand, I was unable to decipher the meaning, cultural significance and symbolism of the abundance of snapshots into their lives that they shared that day. I felt honoured yet totally exhausted at the end and am surprised my chin wasn’t grazed by it having been dragging along the floor in awe.
A few days later, I boarded the boat in Tabatinga in Brasil, destination Manaus. After having had my bags searched and passport checked on the first deck, I progressed to the second floor, where I was met by a rainbow of hammocks, all criss-crossing each other in a seemingly disorganised organised fashion. I spotted a space and proceeded to feign knowing how to tie my bed to the bars above. I felt a slight sense of shame as my father is a first mate on private yachts and as his child I should know the most basic of knots. But no. My new neighbour, Morgane from Perpignan, assisted me as best she knew how until a lady from Brasil came to my rescue, securing my new home in and amongst the rest of the material crescents. Max, an Austrian surfer then emerged, laden with beer and breakfast with seconds to spare before we set off on what would be four nights and three and a half days down the Amazon River.
The trip was a time of bonding, encouraged and inspired by the architecture of the boat. We shared meals, which consisted of queuing up outside the feeding room. Around twenty people would be ushered into the room with a large table stuffed with carbs and meat and nothing else. Our new friend Carl from British Guyana would hang out in the kitchen with the ladies, voluntarily washing up with a big smile on his face. And we’d fluster our way through the new language with a lot of shhhh sounds and nasal pronunciations. We became friends with seven Haitian refugees, who’d travelled both legally and illegally for several days, with a view to escaping poverty and lack of opportunity in their destroyed homeland. We also befriended Laney and her friends and family, the lady who gave me my first floral manicure and pedicure on the top deck. Hugs were shared with women who cried saying goodbye to their loved ones in Tabitinga, and smiles were apportioned to the babies, parents, children, drunken Peruvian musicians and all the staff. Romances were formed between neighbours whose hammocks forced their bodies into close proximity. Oral communication was displaced by facial expression and gesticulation. Storms broke out, and I found the Haitians huddled around their Bibles palpably trembling in fear. They couldn’t swim and had jettisoned their lives, left their homes and families behind all based on the hope they would prosper in Brasil. Their naivety and vulnerability was almost too much.
The jungle presented itself to me in the form of a multi-coloured wall of elliptical opportunity filled with a diversity of life so rich it is unfathomable. The boat was both a liberator and inhibitor for it carried me through the Amazon that I had dreamed of experiencing since I was a child, yet my vessel held me captive on its decks until Manaus, leaving only my imagination free. As we passed villages and various ports the urge to jump off and run into the jungle was intense. Who lives here? What do they do? What do they eat? How do they think? How do they conceive time, space, life, and religion? What is the relationship between this complex ecosystem made up of a profusion of plants and beasts all residing in the lungs of the world? Questions, questions.
Eventually we arrived in Manaus, a sprawling city in the middle of the jungle. Almost immediately I fell ill, experiencing a sense of unease and fever that dissipated days later whilst boarding the next boat to Santarem. Manaus for me was a sad aberration to the dazzling spectacle that Mother Nature had welcomed us into on the boat. It’s Brasil’s industrial centre, stinking, contaminated, polluted and filled with contradictions in complete disharmony with its environment. You could look around at the towering buildings and have no idea where you were. The lungs of the world had lost their puff, and I felt confused, weak and perturbed. However, this is the point where I reluctantly became a mother of three one Saturday night. Here, the opening lines’ omission will be now filled and conclusions drawn, as I fear I may be losing your attention.
On Saturday night, whilst I lay in the darkened dorm room trying to shirk my fever, Morgane, Max and Karina, a biologist from Sao Paulo returned from a non-eventful night out. As they reached the hostel they saw three little kittens abandoned and crying in their blind condition. Without a moment’s thought, they were scooped up and placed in a nearby box by their new family. The next day I kept my distance from the kittens, not wanting to get involved as I knew the moment I did I would fall in love and become entrapped in their plight. The biologist spent all day calling vets, rescue places, charities but to no avail as everyone was shut for God’s day. As the possibilities of their saviour diminished even further, two polarised options lay before us. Leave them on the streets, where they would die within a day, or adopt them as our own and find them a home. Max’s search around the city on Monday morning whilst we awaited him on the boat left him with no choice but to bring them aboard, in a box, with his surfboard and all.
It was at this point that I embraced motherhood with gusto. Over the next two days on the boat, we fed them with syringes, cleaned them and loved them. They spent hours sat on our tummies so they could feel contact with a warm body that should have been more of the four-legged milk-laden version, but we would have to do. On our arrival in Santarem we bought a baby bottle, with a massive teat that engulfed their whole mouth. Their names varied over time, but we eventually settled on Mr White, Freddy and Grumpy, despite their sex! So here we were, in the Amazon with babies, a nappy bag and a surfboard. It was beyond surreal. Over the next few days in Alter do Chao, where the Green Lake, the Tapajos River and the Amazon meet, we attempted to find them a home, with very little success. People met us with bemusement whilst cruising around with our babies in a box, as cultural perceptions of animals are very different here. What are these crazy gringos doing trying to save the lives of three cats? The owner of the hostel in Manaus told us the best we could do for them would be to put them in a bag and smash them against a wall, which clearly wasn’t an option. Or drown them, or take them to a vet who would put them down. No thanks.
After a day on the beach, with the babies hanging from a tree in a box in the shade, the responsibility we had taken on and people’s reticence to adopt them and all that these kittens began to represent started to get to me. They reminded me of the loss of my mum, the fragility of life, the dependency and vulnerability of children and cultural relativity towards life. A deep sadness crept in, clouding my perceptions. In the evening, Morgane the warrior from Perpignan snapped us all back into action mode, as we were all beginning to feel the pressure of parenthood in a foreign land. We would knock on every door of every home until we found them a new family. And I remembered the importance of faith and positive thought. The plight of the Haitians on the boat returned to me, and a vision of their faith, albeit it in a God I don’t believe in that they would survive and prosper the storms and the challenges awaiting them gave me great strength. The next day, Morgane, Max and Wessly, a Brasilian geographer, headed into town, with our babies in the box and pink laundry bag. Morgane had a strong impulse that the old lady Madaleine that the herbal doctor had introduced her to the day before would welcome the kittens into her home. They approached her and the family, and within minutes, they had agreed to look after them. Mada’s 8 year-old grand-daughter dreamt of becoming a vet in the future, and so the kittens would become her first project. Purrrrrfect. My brief venture into parenthood taught me to keep the faith, for people are generally good, and it all works out in the end.