When you travel 800 miles into the jungles of the Amazon, you expect to reach Indian villages untouched by modern man. So when our cruise ship arrived at Boca de Valeria, along the banks of the Amazon River, I thought I knew what to expect. But judging by the "Let's Go Mets" and "Madonna" t-shirts worn by some of the natives, I realized I was wrong. Americans had been there before...
These Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, though familiar with the more contemporary traveller, do indeed live off the land. Grass huts and log canoes are a way of life to these people. Hunting and fishing keep them fed, and trading with the occasional tourist is nothing new. Advertisements for their convenient lay-away plan and revolving credit make that clear.
Making my way around this friendly village of 60 families, dozens of children approach me selling everything from pieces of ancient clay pottery (stamped "Made in Taiwan") to those water-filled plastic things you turn over so it looks like it's snowing on the plastic city inside. Hell, it hasn't snowed in the Amazon since the sixth century B.C. (flurries about midday)! And wouldn't you know it, each was clearly dated on the bottom, "May 3, 600 B.C." I bought a dozen. At $19.95 each, how could I resist these priceless artifacts? They even threw in a Ginsu knife absolutely free!
After a short time I started to feel like I was invading the privacy of these kind Amazonians. I wouldn't be happy with stranger walking through my yard, peering in my windows, pointing and laughing -- that's why I moved out of New York! I was feeling guilty, so I decided that as soon as I shot 17 rolls of film and two video cassettes I'd leave. I would never want to impose on anyone!
Seven hours later I was confident I had photos of me posing with every native in town, and I was ready to go. Besides, by then I was out of business cards. Hey, you never know when a Bar-Mitzvah might come up! Knowing I had gotten a lot out of my visit, I wanted to leave them something in return. Something special. Something they'd always remember.
Standing in an open area between several huts I pulled out three balls and began to juggle. Naturally I assumed they had never seen anything like this before. The crowd grew, people were smiling, and I knew I was going to be a big hit. Smashing the balls against my head... laughter. In the mouth... more laughter. After five minutes of non-stop juggling my crowd had grown to more than 50 people. Finally I stopped and bowed. Dead silence. No applause. Applause is not part of their culture. Like in the Catskills.
I continued. machetes, bowling balls, diabolo, cigar boxes and devil stick. One hundred eyes were upon me. The expression of joy and bewilderment on the faces of every child and adult brought tears to my eyes. I've never felt so good. I thought they would make me their god. Bow down to me. Give me my own hut. And all their virgins. I felt wonderful.
With my head on Cloud Nine, I performed my finale. Proud as can be, I bowed once more. As expected, no applause. But instead of dead silence, a voice from the crowd. In poor, but understandable English... "Yeah, but can you do the ping-pong balls out of the mouth like Michael Davis?"
I packed my stuff and headed back to the ship, away from these cruel, uncivilized barbarians. Thanks a lot, Michael!
(Comedy juggler Jack Swersie performed on the Ocen Princess cruise ship in December and January. Two weeks were spent on the Amazon River where he juggled for natives in several villages.)