To see more photographs in this series from Kike Arnal, click here.
The Amazon River is not only the largest river in the world, but with few serviceable roads into its deep jungle, the river is also the primary means of passage through the Amazon forest—the thoroughfare that nearly everyone in this vast region must use for travel. At its widest points, the Amazon River appears to be a colossal lake. And on its smallest tributaries, the trees from each of its shores are a tangled mass of connecting limbs that make navigating a small canoe hard to accomplish without ducking or hacking vines.
In June 2022, I set off with the photographer Kike Arnal to document the many travelers of the Amazon. Kike grew up in Venezuela and has been climbing the mountains and traveling the rivers of the Amazon basin since he was a boy. Together we take a series of cargo-passenger ships starting in the large city of Belém, where the Amazon pours into the Atlantic Ocean at a rate of almost 58 million gallons a second, upriver through Brazil, Colombia and Peru. We sleep, eat and live on five different vessels, spending time with the passengers and crews who ride up and down the river—refugees looking for a new life upstream, gold mine owners and their wives bedecked in blinding jewelry, devout evangelicals traveling to spread God’s Word, Indigenous elders heading into town to visit a doctor. We interviewed and photographed close to a hundred people over weeks of travel.
What becomes clear is that there is no single Amazon, no one unassailable place where the forest or its inhabitants are more pristine or authentic than elsewhere. The Amazon is mammoth in both size and imagination. It is made up of different groups representing conflicting ideologies: loggers, miners, farmers, the Indigenous, soldiers and drug traffickers—the list of those whocall the Amazon home is long—and all lay claim to its bounty. History attests to the many efforts to gain mastery over this region; it’s been the theater of grand conflicts, spurred on by religious beliefs, corporate greed, romantic idealization, medical ingenuity and military power. They are all intertwined, together making up one world, one Amazon, for better or worse. And the boat is a microcosm of that world. Here are a few of the stories and portraits of today’s Amazon travelers.
Our first boat ride is on a creaky three-story vessel that leaves Belém, the crowded city that’s near the mouth of the Amazon River. The lower deck is packed with cargo of bananas, melons, motorcycles, car parts, medicine and rice, all to be delivered upriver. The two upper decks are open to the elements and are reserved for passengers to store their belongings and hang the sleeping hammocks they bring with them. On our first night aboard, someone props up an oversize speaker on the counter of a cantina that opens onto the deck on the top floor. Pop-Brazilian music blasts as men sit at white plastic tables and drink can after small can of a watery, weak beer, piling the remnants in front of them as a testament to their virility. The drinking lasts late into the night and begins again as early as 9 a.m., continuing at a steady clip well into the following night.
Kike and I spend our first day talking with a group of musicians on the back deck. They’re members of a local death metal band. The men are on their way to a gig in the next town upriver. But because there is no direct road, taking the overnight boat is the most sensible way to get there. They have paid extra for a cabin to stow their equipment and have crammed it full of drums, guitars and amps.
The lead singer is talkative and charismatic, he is a new father and smiles easily. But it is the guitarist, mild-mannered and thoughtful, who is most intriguing. The guitar is almost an extension of his fingers, and he glides through wild riffs serenely, his long hair flailing. He is calm and tempestuous all at once. While we talk on the back deck, he tells me matter-of-factly that he is a Satanist and hands me a CD with a satanic symbol on it.
“Take it,” he says, smiling. “It’s a gift.”
“A Satanist?” I ask, unconvinced. I later learn that being the guitarist in a death metal band is not what his plastic surgeon father and lawyer mother wanted for him when they sent him to a private English school in Belém.
He smiles and explains that for him, being a Satanist is not about hedonism or destructiveness. Instead, it’s a way of externalizing the evil that resides in us all. “To me, it’s more about identifying Satan as an archetype,” he says. “It’s about the extreme hard truths of life. The ones that we usually try to avoid. Satan is the one who has to deal with presenting those hard realities to man and to God.” He pauses and looks at me to see if I’m getting it. “It’s us,” he says. “It’s us—we are the ones that create evil in the world.”
THE VENEZUELAN REFUGEES
After the first two nights, the pop music is shut off and the speaker is tucked back behind the cantina counter. A lazy calm has settled over the passengers. Almost no one orders beers. The money has run out. Aliane Piñeiro, who oversees the cantina, is exhausted and shakes her head in relief. The boat’s hammocks are hung close together under a metal canopy with the sides open to the air and sun and rain. Passengers shift about, playing dominoes and chatting. There is no internet and little privacy, so there is a tremendous amount of time to get to know your shipmates. It is simply us and the river and long days with little to do but watch storms come and go across the sky, the passing farms flooded from a high rainy season, and small homes propped up on stilts.
Eriangelis and Jexon Moreno spend most of the trip snuggled in a single hammock with their three-month-old baby, Jeximar. Eriangelis, at 18 years old, is calm and at ease with her new baby. The young couple met in a refugee camp in the Brazilian city of Boa Vista. They fled Venezuela for different reasons, each in search of something better, safer, gentler. In the past seven years, more than seven million people have left Venezuela, undone by economic hardship, lack of food, medical shortages and political strife. Often taking off on foot, these refugees have headed to other parts of Latin America, some traveling as far as the United States or, like Eriangelis and Jexon, just across the border to Brazil.
Jexon explains that his father worked as a police officer in Venezuela. After he was killed by a gang in their hometown, Jexon was forced to fend for himself. He was only 12. After a few false starts, he and his mother found jobs in a gold mine. The mines are notoriously dangerous, often small, unpleasant operations run as semi-forced labor camps where hours are brutal, wages are low and workers might simply disappear after disputes. Few women among the miners escape being used for domestic labor or sex.
Jexon and his mother lived and worked at the mine for five years. I ask about his mother, and he stays silent. At 18, he finally had enough. He packed up and left Venezuela, eventually making it to the refugee camp where he met Eriangelis and fell in love. The young couple has been trying to piece together a living. He found a job as a general contractor, but life is still hard. And so they’ve decided to brave the trip back to Venezuela. Eriangelis’s mother, wanting to be near her daughter and grandchild, tells them that life in Venezuela is getting better. And the couple is eager to have family to help them with the baby. They are not alone. Many former refugees are returning, finding life abroad to be too hard.
At every port, Rafaela Mourão sits at a small folding table collecting passengers’ boarding fees and issuing them assigned slots to hang their hammocks. Doling out sleeping quarters is only a small part of her job. Rafaela is also the boat’s nurse, a position she has held for seven years. The most common illnesses on the boat, she says, are heart problems and malaria. One afternoon I watch her as she tends to an older man with a high fever. He is too weak to leave his hammock. I ask if she thinks he has Covid, but she is adamant that that’s not the case. “We get very little Covid on board,” she assures me. She checks his heart and gives him aspirin, then stays to spend a few minutes with him in quiet conversation.
Rafaela is 30. She is married and has two young children. “The hardest part of my job is the distance from my children,” she admits. She travels on a loop, back and forth between Belém and Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas. “But this work is in my family,” she adds. “My father was a sailor.” She shows me a photo of herself in dress whites, a clean sharp cap resting on her head. She holds up another photo, from Instagram, where she is flanked by her mother in a blue lace dress and her father in a suit and tie. In her hand is a nautical nursing diploma. The caption reads, “I continue in the family tradition.”
Most days, Rafaela wears a fitted khaki uniform and bright purple lipstick. She is gentle and playful—a boat favorite. A large party of loggers traveling to a new campsite all know Rafaela by name and tease her smilingly as she passes by. The loggers share between them a contraband bottle of cachaça, even though hard alcohol is forbidden in an effort to prevent accidents and the loss of passengers overboard. But the loggers flaunt their spoils openly and spend the day in a group drinking and relaxing; once at camp, they will work for weeks with little rest. When I ask Rafaela how she handles the men on board, she is straightforward: “I’m strong and I keep the men in line.”
SHARON, THE SHAMAN’S WIFE
Sharon is hard to miss. She is stylish, with oversize 1970s sunglasses and a red bandana around her head. She flits around the boat, smiling, smoking cigarettes, talking with passersby. Sharon and I strike up a conversation in the hull near the bathrooms, where she is washing up. In a matter of minutes, I learn that she is 33 and that her father is Japanese, her mother is Brazilian and her husband is a Peruvian shaman.
While frantically brushing her teeth, she explains that she is on her way to India to learn how to bury the dead. Before I have the chance to ask why a slow boat in the Amazon is her preferred route to India, she jumps ahead, talking as rapidly as her toothbrush moves, about how after India she then plans to go to the United States. Her true aim, she says, is to get to Arizona and become a politician. This time I am quicker and jump in: “Why Arizona?”
“Because that is where I met my husband in a past life.”
Again, I make her break for a short clarification. It seems her husband in her past life was also the same man she is married to now, the Peruvian shaman. In their past lives, however, he was a Native American and she was from New York City. They met in the dry, dusty desert of Arizona, where they would lie under the stars and make love.
“We had a baby,” Sharon says. She stops and cocks her head. “We also have a baby in this life.” A three-year-old living with her mother, whom I will later meet via FaceTime. “Julian Assange is my son’s godfather,” she says. She pauses, then adds nonplussed, “Although I haven’t met Assange yet.” Within minutes she is on to the next subject. Before she goes to India she must make a stop at a gold mine in Colombia. She is friends with the mine’s owner, she says, and she absolutely needs to meet with him because they are of a similar spiritual type.
As if on cue, just over her shoulder, I catch sight of Jexon. I imagine him, at age 12, lugging sacks of dirt at a mine while men scowl at him.
“Why would you want to be involved with a gold mine?” I ask Sharon. She grabs my hands and launches into a story about a great prophecy that was made before Christ’s birth that one day all the gold in the world would bubble up to the surface of the earth.
“I need to be connected to that,” she says.
“You’re searching for your own El Dorado,” I say, smiling.
She laughs. “No, no. It’s nothing like that.”
THE PORT TOWN OF PARINTINS
We stop at the port of Parintins for five hours. The ship’s crew spends the time loading and unloading everything from metal piping and bags of rice to beauty supplies, medicine and shrimp. I learn that one young man who Kike photographed in the boat’s cargo hold carrying a 150-pound bag over his head is nicknamed the Ox because of how fast he can move cargo. Originally from Venezuela, Abicmelet Jonnso Sierra Herrera, aka the Ox, too, came to Brazil in search of a better life. He learned Portuguese in a matter of months and is lighthearted and quick-witted with the crew.
In port, the boat has internet for the first time in days, and everyone retreats into their corners to stare into their phones. Calls are made, selfies taken and thumbs glide and glide, endlessly scrolling. But at sunset, we take off again and the Wi-Fi dies.
At dusk, the younger crowd from the boat climbs up a ladder to the roof. Kike and I buy sweet, watered-down vodka drinks and join them. Sharon is in a corner, sitting on a small wooden box while amplifying music from her phone by propping it inside a tin pot as a kind of homemade speaker. The loggers have taken over one of the lifeboats and sit in a cluster, their quiet talk punctuated sporadically with sudden breaks of cackling laughter.
I watch the young Venezuelan newlyweds climb the ladder, handing their baby to each other as they skirt over the railing. They join Sharon, who offers weed to everyone around her. The couple huddles with Sharon in a corner, the baby carefully wrapped in a blanket. The red moon rises in the east, a lightning storm flares in the north and there is the endless chug chug chug of the boat.
Sharon turns off the music and begins to sing a low lyrical ballad. The sky darkens, and the boat switches on its searchlight, scanning the river for logs or small vessels to avoid. We are scheduled to arrive in Manaus tomorrow, but a quick look at the map, when the Wi-Fi works, shows that we are only a little over halfway there. Kike and I laugh. We will get there when we get there.
Yolanda is the only person we meet on the first boat who does not let us take her photo. She is also the only Black woman onboard. She looks to be in her late 50s. Unlike most Brazilians, when she talks to me, she speaks quickly, not slowing down or over enunciating her words for my benefit. Instead, she speaks at the pace of understanding, making it so that I am somehow able to catch more of her meaning. Time and again during the trip, I find her by my side, and she talks to me as if we were old friends.
One afternoon, we are at one of the small white plastic tables with an older man who introduces himself as “Yolanda’s boat friend.” As we talk, she points to many scars up and down her legs, each the size of a bullet hole. She worked in the forest, and from what I can understand, a log had fallen on her and shattered her legs. She meticulously points out each scar, describing one disaster after another. I can tell by the way her “boat friend” grimaces and shakes his head that the stories she is telling are gruesome. When I feign shivers, they both smile approvingly, pleased that I seem to understand the horrors she is relaying. Some kind of trauma is lodged in her, and she wants me to feel it, so she relates a string of grisly stories, from the logging accident to animal attacks to the deaths of two men who only that morning had been discovered murdered and left in the jungle. They were the Indigenous organizer Bruno Pereira, working to stop illegal poachers from infringing on Indigenous land, and the British journalist Dom Phillips, who was researching a book titled How to Save the Amazon. They disappeared ten days earlier and have been the talk of Brazil since I arrived. Bruno, a former government official, later worked independently to organize Indigenous groups to patrol the forest for themselves. Dom was traveling with Bruno to document his work. Together they set out down the Itaquaí in a small metal boat equipped with an outboard motor and supplies for the short journey. Instead they were accosted by poachers who attacked them by gunfire, dismembered their bodies and hid them in the forest.
I had discussed the case with the musicians the first night on the boat. The two men were still missing, and the musicians thought it was disgraceful that then President Jair Bolsonaro was doing nothing to stop poachers and narco thugs from harassing or even killing Indigenous people who were simply trying to live on protected land. “Even when it’s a British journalist and the whole world is watching, it doesn’t put pressure on him,” said the drummer. “It looks like nothing will happen. Corruption is corruption.” Four months later, though, Bolsonaro would lose the election to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and by January 2023, the alleged mastermind behind the killings of Bruno and Dom would be arrested.
But that afternoon, sitting and talking on the boat with Yolanda, the bodies had only just been found.
“Don’t get off the boat,” Yolanda tells me sternly. “If you go into the forest, you will probably die like those two American journalists.”
I laugh. “Well lucky for me they weren’t American,” I say in English. Yolanda doesn’t understand but nods seriously in agreement, then raises her hand and draws it slowly across her neck.
“Dead,” she says, pointing at me.
THE AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST
A week or so later, Kike and I find ourselves on a much smaller boat heading up the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon River that we take from Manaus toward Colombia. On this boat, for the first time since entering the Amazon, I catch sight of two white women, one of whom looks to be in her 50s, the other in her 30s. At first, I mistake them for a mother and daughter, but they are in fact colleagues, anthropologists from an American university who have spent years conducting interviews with Indigenous people in this part of the Amazon.
The two women have hundreds of hours of interviews, some recorded on reels of tape, some on video and some jotted down in what they admit are just messy handwritten notes. They have been working with the same Indigenous community for years, and this is their first trip back to the village since the pandemic began. To get there, they must take this boat for three nights, then meet members of the community who will take them by canoe for another two days up a small tributary. When traveling by canoe, they won’t be able to hang hammocks but will sleep instead curled up on the bottom of the small vessel. “It’s damp,” the younger woman tells me. “But you get used to it.”
At first, the women are quiet and keep to themselves. But as we sit and watch the flooded trees and small islands that are common in this region, they begin to open up. They say that the recent killings of Dom and Bruno have made them less talkative. This is the first trip in which they have made a conscious decision not to advertise what they do for work.
“Usually we are quite open,” says the older woman. But, she explains, there has been more violence and less oversight in recent years. “Covid opened the floodgates for illegal mining and drug trafficking in a way that it had not before.”
“I’ve been frightened before by the jungle,” says the younger woman. “Will I step on a snake, will I get hurt? But this is the first time I’m frightened by the people.” She mentions the drones one occasionally spots in the jungle. “Sometimes just to intimidate. To let people know someone is nearby, someone is watching and maybe you should leave.”
After a while they begin telling stories, and then it’s hard to stop them. They tell story after story.
THE NEW TRIBES MISSIONARY
Victor Oling Guedes is an evangelical Christian living in a Yanomami village of nearly 500 people. Originally from a town near Brasilia, he is a missionary for the New Tribes Mission (recently rebranded as Ethnos360), whose motto was to “reach the unreachable.” There is something of the adventurer about Victor. He clearly revels in his role as a man at the outpost of “civilization.” He explains that he is not allowed to tell me where the village is, but he lets me know that it’s a full day of travel by canoe on a tributary off the Rio Negro and that he then must carry his boat up a waterfall and continue another half day to reach the village. He makes clear that he aims to be like one of the villagers. “It’s the same thing the missionaries did in the 1800s,” he says. “You have to learn the culture so we can preach the gospel.” But when pressed, he admits that in the village of 500, only one man has converted and believes in Jesus, and in fact he was converted in town before Victor even arrived.
Traditionally, Yanomami people live in shabonos, large circular communal houses, each family with its own section open to the larger central area. They sustain themselves on their hunting skills as well as by growing corn, plantains and other fruits and vegetables. Victor has built himself a small house on the outskirts of the village, saying the communal shabono is too noisy for his taste. In most other matters, though, he explains, he tries to assimilate. “I eat whatever they give me, different kinds of bananas. Bananas to cook. Bananas to just eat. Bananas to mash and make banana soup.” He pauses. “They even gave me a family.” He was given a wife, although he explains that he does not live with her but that she is his “family” nonetheless. He tells me how he will often joke with his gift wife.
“Wife,” he will ask her, “what did you cook for me today?” And she will laugh and respond, “But husband, what meat did you hunt for me today?” He’s not a hunter. Victor smiles a kind of wry smile. “That’s how they treat me. With humor.”
Victor met his actual legal wife when at school with the New Tribes Mission in the city. “We graduated in the morning and we married in the afternoon,” he tells me. They have a child, and she plans to join him in the Yanomami village soon.
Victor sees part of his role as assisting villages with gifts of food and provisions. “They used to fish with poison, now they want hooks,” he says. So he provides hooks, rice and other tools from the city. “We are not like the anthropologists,” he explains. “The anthropologist wants to observe. They find it interesting to see how Yanomami live. How they fight.”
Victor does not want to be only an observer, and he is not afraid to give advice.
“Do they listen to your advice?” I ask, wondering what changes villagers were willing to make to receive their hooks and rice.
Victor laughs good-naturedly. “I say, don’t kill someone’s chicken, don’t steal someone’s wife. You have a wife, you don’t need another. Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t.” He continues: “The anthropologist says let them break their heads, it’s how they do. I don’t like to see them hit their heads as human beings. You don’t want to see another human kill.”
On his phone, Victor shows me a string of photos of himself in the village. The most striking is of a recently killed jaguar in the back of his house. The photo shows a group of nearly 50 villagers standing around the animal’s body. A man in flip-flops and red shorts stands over the jaguar, pointing at it with a gun at his side. “The jaguar spirit is the most powerful spirit,” Victor says. “The Yanomami are expert hunters but won’t eat the jaguar because of its powers. Even after they kill it, they won’t disturb the beast. They just let it be.”
Bruno Garrido Garrdos is 20 years old. He and his wife are among the remaining Indigenous Baré people who live in the upper Rio Negro. When Kike and I first see Bruno, he is sitting in his hammock reading Seventh-day Adventist tracts, the kind with cartoon characters discussing eternal damnation. He is wearing a bright shirt with blue and pink stripes, and his hair is dyed red. Later that night, as I’m standing alone by the boat’s railing, he joins me. We have no shared language by which to communicate. He hands me his phone and gestures for me to hold it as a flashlight while he takes out a folded piece of paper from his pocket. He rips off a small section and proceeds to roll it into a cigarette. He rubs it swiftly between the palms of his hands and lights it. He holds out his hand for his phone and I hand it to him. He immediately begins scrolling through old messages. There is no Wi-Fi, but he is shy, and the phone is a tool he can use to act busy and nonchalant while we stand side by side in the evening. The moon has not yet risen, the night is pitch-black and the river is so still you can see the Big Dipper perfectly reflected on the water’s surface. The captain navigates without lights; the only sight lines are the dark splotches of trees along the shore.
Later that night, I wake up and climb out of my hammock. A small speedboat has pulled up alongside the ship. Boats come and go all night, mostly fishermen delivering cargo to our ship—bags of shrimp or fish—to take to large ports upriver. The fishing boats are usually clunky, and the engines are loud, with the fishermen scurrying along the tops in flip-flops, hurriedly handing the cargo to the hold. This boat is different. It’s shiny and has a large, expensive-looking searchlight on its bow. Its men are well dressed, in long pants and shoes. They hand over small packages of cargo, tight bricks. The boats that Kike and I are traveling on are often protected by armed gunmen who keep potential robbers at bay with long rifles that seem mostly for show. There is a great deal of expensive cargo on board. I watch intently until the men finish unloading. And then I head back to the hammock to nestle down, a couple on one side of me and an old man on the other.
Kira Brunner Don is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Stranger’s Guide. She worked as a magazine editor in New York for seventeen years and as a journalist in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. She studied philosophy at The New School’s Graduate Faculty and worked at a think tank at Columbia University before joining Lapham’s Quarterly, where she was executive editor for eight years. She is co-editor of the book The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention and is the founding co-director of the Oakland Book Festival.
Kike Arnal is a Venezuelan American documentary photographer. His work has been published by The New York Times and Mother Jones among others. Arnal is the author of four photography books: In the Shadow of Power, Bordered Lives, Revealing Selves and Voladores.