Tomaso said he had overheard several men talking openly about killing me.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
“You should leave,” he urged again.
Like I said, I was young, enthusiastic, and an outsider. I was about to learn a hard lesson.
The next evening, I went to a restaurant I’d eaten in several times, a little shack that smelled of herbs and feijoada, the classic Brazilian pork and bean dish. The place had a corrugated tin roof and tin walls that could be moved like shutters—very convenient for tropical climes. The tables were slabs of wood, thick as pylons, and the floor sported patterns of bright mosaic tile.
I remember it rained pretty hard that day. Well, it rained pretty hard almost every day, but this time it was still coming down when my group and I pulled up in our cars. Our party numbered six or seven in all: myself, Tomaso, the captain of my riverboat, and a few people who worked in Tomaso’s office, all good people, all friends. We bolted from our cars and scampered into the restaurant as fast as we could, though we needn’t have bothered. The moment we got under the roof, the rain shut off like a faucet. This was typical for Acre. If you didn’t like the weather, all you had to do was wait a few moments for it to change.
We sat at one of the big tables in the back, near the kitchen door, and ordered a round of drinks plus some deep-fried vegetable appetizers. I remember that I had just cracked open an ice-cold Antarctica beer when the first course came out and we started to eat. Along with the feijoada, we had pirarucu, a prehistoric beast of a fish that, thankfully, tastes better than it looks. We were right in the middle of chatting and chewing when the restaurateur, who was also the chef, burst out of the kitchen looking very harried, and started rattling in Portuguese, too loud and fast for me to follow.
“What is it?” I asked (or started to, anyway).
Tomaso jumped up, grabbed my arm, and dragged me toward the kitchen. I launched into a series of questions, protesting, but Tomaso wouldn’t stop. He pulled me through the kitchen door, past the hot stove with its clutch of pots bubbling on the range, out a back door, across the parking lot, and into one of our cars.
The rest of my party was right behind us. Over my protestations, someone keyed the ignition of the vehicle I was in and we all drove away before the doors had even closed. By this point, I felt stupid and scared.
“What is it?” I asked again in Portuguese. “What’s happening?”
We sped to a house owned by one of Tomaso’s friends and went inside. Beers were plucked from a refrigerator and passed around, and again I asked what had happened. This is what my friends told me:
The chef had been working at his stove when he looked up and saw a car pull into the parking lot. Some men got out and they all had guns, which wasn’t really so odd. Back then, I used to see pistols all the time in that part of Brazil. I was never comfortable with it, but then no one ever asked my opinion. At any rate, the chef recognized these men as part of a group not known for its diplomacy. He went out to ask them what was going on. The men with the guns said they wanted to see the Australian guy from ONU, meaning L’Organisation Internationale des Nations Unies. Meaning the UN. Meaning me.
The chef was a good man. He told them he didn’t know where I was, so the men with guns moved off down the street while the chef slipped back inside, went straight to our table, and explained what he’d seen. Which is when Tomaso had hustled me out.
I remember hearing all this and thinking that my friend had lost their minds.
“I told you,” Tomaso said. “You must leave.”
This time, I didn’t argue. I had them drive me back to my tiny hotel, where I went up to my room on the third floor, locked the door, and lay down to get some sleep.
I spent the next day in my room, on my Epson. No big events occurred. I got good pages done on the latest proposal I was writing. But the next morning, somebody knocked on my door at about eight o’clock. I got up from the little table I was working at and went to look through the peephole.
It was the hotel manager, a man I knew fairly well since this was my sixth or seventh stay at his place. He looked upset, so I let him in.
“You have to leave now,” he said. “My friend just called from the airport. A man is there. He’s drunk and waving a pistol around and screaming that he’s coming to kill you!”
Again, I thought this was crazy.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” I said. “Can’t we call the police or something? Hey!”
The manager had barged past me into my room and started to dart around, gathering clothes and books, which he threw on the bed.
“I have a car,” he said. “This man? My friend said he was stark raving mad, demanding to see the tall Australian from ONU.”
I thought of what had happened at the restaurant the day before last, and that was all it took. Grabbing my suitcases, I stuffed them with clothes. Then I figured to hell with that, clothes are replaceable, flesh and bone is not. So I snapped up my Epson and followed the manager out of the room, down the fire stairs, to an alley behind the hotel. He waved me toward his ancient Mazda sedan, his personal car that was also his cab. Like many merchants in remote locales, the manager had more than one job. He moonlighted as a taxi driver.
“Get in the back!” he said. “Get down and stay out of sight!”
This was easier said than done. In the first place, I stand about six feet tall. More importantly, however, the floor of that sedan had rusted out long ago. I ended up draping myself over the torn, sprung upholstery, clutching my Epson to my chest in hopes that it would stop bullets, and staring down at the dirt track zipping past, a little more than a foot from my nose.
The manager avoided the main streets and blasted down back roads, angling toward the airport. We were pretty far out in the sticks, so the local facility was little more than a single landing strip on the outskirts of town. The place had a couple of Quonset huts set up to handle private aircraft. Each time I passed through there, I saw the same gaggle of ancient mechanics lounging on crates full of broken machinery, smoking and drinking beer. Not a rustic airport so much as a dilapidated one. I was never so pleased to arrive there.
The hotel manager screeched to a stop behind a primitive earthen berm. This was part of a new construction project. Bulldozers had pushed earth and debris into ridges like hedgerows, perhaps preparing the way for a new terminal. The manager told me to wait in the car and stay out of sight while he went to scout the place out. Luck was on my side again. Behind the berm, I was, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
A few minutes later, the manager returned and reported that, unfortunately, the local flight had just departed. It wouldn’t return until the next day.
“But not to worry,” he said. “My friend—the one who called me to warn you? He owns a Cessna and owes me a favor. He says he will fly you to the next town, which is not far from here.”
“When?” I asked.
“Right now,” he said, helping me out of the Mazda.
The ride in that Cessna was everything you can probably imagine it to be.
The plane was old, held together with spit, twine, and electrical tape.
At various points, I felt certain that the pilot’s constant chatter was the only thing keeping wind under his aircraft’s crooked wings. Whenever the Cessna dipped suddenly or its engine hacked smoke, which was often, I found myself mentally tallying pros and cons. Was it better to be murdered by drunken Brazilian assassins or to die in the fiery wreckage of a plane crash in the jungle? I never drew a conclusion on that one.
Fortune smiled, and we landed safely. At the next airport, I kept my head down while waiting for the next VARIG flight; this one went to Cuiabá, then Belo Horizonte, and finally Rio, where I stopped to gather my wits and find a phone.
I first called Sadia Hauache, but her secretary told me flat out that Sadia could not speak with me. This stunned and confused me, doubly so when Mesquita’s office gave me the same response. Why was I being ostracized? It took me a while to figure it out.
As I’ve mentioned, I was young at the time, with a light-weight’s grasp of certain political realities. As a tall, white outlander, I had always been conspicuous in Brazil, a predicament that grew starker the further I penetrated the jungle. In many places I visited, the people had rarely met anyone from Australia. They regarded me with a mixture of wonder and deep suspicion. I’d worked very hard to remove these hurdles. Using my broken Portuguese, I’d explained my mission to anyone who would listen. But there is a point where even the most motivated outsider, even one working informally for Brazil’s federal government, could go no further.
The powerful people who ran these rainforest outposts benefited greatly from the status quo. They benefited from de- forestation, and they had realized what I was up to. They had contacts and friends who owed them favors, and they’d called some in. I was done.
I was able to confirm this when I called up a confidante in Mesquita’s office, a secretary with whom I would develop a lovely rapport. She seemed hesitant to speak at first. Without saying so directly, she let me know that I should not call again. Though I left a message for the minister to call me, I was not surprised when he never replied.
If all of this sounds paranoid, consider the way things were run in the rainforests of Brazil during the interval I was there. In every settlement I visited, the local land records office was never located in the village proper. Why? Because disputes over property would arise from time to time. When they did, it was common practice for one party or another to burn down the land office, destroying all the titles on file.
This was paper documentation, of course. During the early 1980s, Brazil was essentially a developing nation. Rain forest municipalities kept their records on paper. Computers were nonexistent. I still remember the look on people’s faces each time I turned on my Epson and started to type. You’d have thought I had just grown a second head.
Abruptly, my adventures in South America had ended, and it was time to go home. There was only one problem.
At that point, I had no idea where home was.
I could always go back to Australia, of course. I certainly had great stories to tell. But making a story wasn’t one of the items on my to-do list. I had skied the Rockies until my legs wouldn’t work anymore. Check. I’d gone to Brazil, learned what was going on with the Amazon rain forest, and managed (I think) to save quite a chunk of it. Check. If I didn’t like how that adventure had concluded, at least I felt justified in scratching the item off my list.
So what did that leave?
I want to make a difference on a global level.
Hmm, I thought. Easier said than done. Let’s table that one for the moment. What else?
I want to live in a foreign country, learn a different language, and experience a different culture.
Well, I thought, technically, the United States is a foreign country and a different culture. You can also argue that it uses a different language, since Yanks favor such a wacky version of English. Blokes are referred to as guys or dudes, and no one says “wacko, mate!” when they’re stoked.
I was basically out of money. I had no job, no income, no visa status. My situation looked grim, indeed.
But not as grim as it looks in Brazil, I thought. At least in New York, I likely won’t be shot.
Though it hurt me to leave at that time, in that way, I booked my flight back to the Big Apple.
Richard Fuller is the founder and president of Pure Earth (formerly the Blacksmith Institute). Considered one of the world’s leading experts on toxic issues, Pure Earth works to combat the proliferation of toxic pollution in forty-five countries around the world.
To date, Fuller and his Pure Earth team have remediated more than 75 toxic sites worldwide, changing the lives of over four million people, including a million children. They are currently working to clean up twenty-four additional toxic sites, which will improve the lives of another three million individuals.
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