I’ve flown a lot in Brazil in airplanes of all sizes… jetliners, commuter planes, small Cessnas. All have been safe trips, although a Cessna’s engine once blew up.
Two friends and I had flown from Belém at the mouth of the Amazon River to Santarém, hundreds of miles up the river, and to several small towns beyond. The engine had “coughed” once or twice on the second day but did not seem to be a problem.
We visited our last village, Curuai, the morning of the third day, but had to circle the grass airstrip and wait until villagers shooed horses away from it before we could land.
Several interviews later, we took off again, intending to return to Belém. Unfortunately, headwinds forced us to stop en route to get more gasoline. This was at Monte Alegre, sixty miles northeast of Santarém. The town sits on a low mountain and overlooks the Amazon River a kilometer or two away. But no gas was available.
Another pilot was due to fly in later in the day and we were told we could get gas from him. By then, though, it would be too late to continue on to Belém that day. We didn't want to fly after noon because, even though it was the "dry season," thunderstorms occur almost every afternoon. It would be too risky. So we had to wait until the next morning.
We had friends in Monte Alegre, a lawyer and a free lance reporter and their families. They told us about UFO sightings in the area and fed us fried fish for lunch. As we ate, I watched buzzards strutting around in the backyard of the compound, hoping to get some crumbs. They were bigger pests than some squirrels I’ve known.
Then our friends showed us some ancient rock art. It was located on a mountain twenty-five kilometers from town. We drove there and all of us got scrapes and bruises climbing about five hundred yards up and down the steep mountainside. It was worth it, though. I had never seen rock art before. These paintings, mostly red circles and squiggly figures (left), were said to be about five thousand years old.
Mosquitoes bit all of us pretty good, and on the way back to town we stopped at two small buildings sitting in the middle of nowhere that housed communal pools fed by warm sulfur springs. We all stripped down to our skivvies and soaked our scrapes and mosquito bites in the soothing water.
The next morning, we arose before dawn and took off. The rising sun was blinding but no one seemed to mind. Then, less than two minutes after we were airborne and well out over the jungle, the engine burped. One little burp was enough.
The pilot, Carlos Montenegro, and my Brazilian friend Major Uyrange Hollanda, himself a military pilot, looked at each other, smiled and we turned around. Two minutes later we were back on the ground.
Carlos phoned the plane’s owner in Belém, who said the spark plugs probably needed cleaning. We cleaned the plugs and put them back in. Then as the rest of us stood watching, Carlos climbed into the cockpit and started the engine. Almost immediately a small explosion sent part of the engine rolling down the tarmac.
We had to phone an air taxi service in Santarém to come and rescue us. We had to leave Carlos in Monte Alegre to wait for a mechanic to fly in and fix the engine. He didn’t mind. It was his hometown.
Hollanda told me later he was sure we would have gone down in the jungle if we hadn't turned back to Monte Alegre that morning.
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WATCH OUT FOR THE BEASTIES
I’ve been in both the jungle and the tropical forest but was never sure which was which. Hollanda said they’re the same… except that in the jungle there are huge snakes and other fierce creatures that will eat you. Not to mention poisonous snakes, poisonous plants and voracious insects.
Hollanda had been trained in jungle warfare and had once been lost in the jungle. He and two soldiers were swept over a waterfall on a river while returning from an expedition to the French Guyana border. They lost their boat, their weapons, and everything else, including most of the clothing they were wearing, most of it ripped off by the rushing water.
They had nothing to eat for thirteen days as they made their way down river to a ranch, the first sign of civilization. They spent every night sleeping on rocks in the river to stay away from the dangers of the jungle.
Hollanda said he and the two soldiers covered themselves with mud every night as protection against the hordes of mosquitoes. There was much more to their ordeal. It was an unbelievable story and he planned to write a book about it. I told him he should call it “The Man of Mud.” He liked that title but, sad to say, he died in 1997 before he got started on the book.
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A MOSQUITO FEEDING FRENZY
There was one night when I wished I’d had such protection against mosquitoes. This was on the same trip described above and several days after we survived the trip to Colares. Hollanda and I had gone up the Amazon, along with the pilot Carlos Montenegro and an American investigator, Charles Tucker. We were trying to run down a report that a UFO had killed two fishermen.
We’d flown to Santarém and on the third day, because the plane couldn’t go everywhere we wanted to go, we hired a boat, the São Jorge (below). It was about forty feet long and had a small cabin and a big covered deck where wecould lie in hammocks as we cruised from village to village.
The pilot of the boat took us to a number of places and about eight that evening we tied up at the last village. It had been dark for about two hours and we were far northwest of Santarém, a long way upriver. As soon as we docked, swarms of mosquitoes attacked us.
Mosquitoes were everywhere, even up inside our pant legs. Everyone was swatting like mad. We made a dash for a warehouse-like building to get inside before we were chewed up.
The building was headquarters for a plantation that was being re-built, and inside we found a number of workers who’d had UFO sightings. They had been whiling away the evening by listening to music on a radio.
When we finished our interviews, we dashed back to the boat and quickly started back downriver. Once we were underway, the rush of air was too strong for mosquitoes and we were free of them for good.
The trip back to Santarém took about two hours. It was a risky since we had no running lights. We encountered a surprising number of fast three-deck passenger boats that were huge. They were worse than speeding locomotives rushing at you in the dark.
Any of them could have run over us and smashed us to bits, and probably never even have been aware of it. Fortunately, our pilot had a powerful flashlight that he used to let them know we were out there too. He also used it to see how far we were from the shore and to watch for logs and other debris floating in our path.
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A LEAKY BOAT TO AULERIANO'S VILLAGE
One July day in 1981 I stopped in São Luís, Brazil to see some friends and do a little research. One friend, Ana Teresa Britto, and I set out to find a guy named Auleriano.
He was burned in the 1977 Crab Island incident, and I wanted to see how he had fared since I’d last seen him. He lived in a village that was hard to get to. It was on the edge of São Marcos Bay about two kilometers south of the Port of Itaqui near São Luís. There was no road leading to it, and the only practical way to get there was by boat.
Ana and I went to the port hoping to hire a motorboat, but all we found were two men with an old rowboat (below right). It appeared to be sturdy and for ten dollars, they agreed to row us to the village. We all climbed in and started down the bay.
It was only when we were a couple of hundred yards away from shore that I realized the boat wasn’t exactly seaworthy. Water began spurting up through a couple of leaks in the bottom. The men were too busy rowing to notice. Ana didn’t seem to be too concerned, and all I could think of was that we’d never make it. I picked up a tin can and began bailing out.
The bay itself is immense and being out in the middle of it is like being in the ocean, where in moderately rough weather waves would swamp a boat like ours. Fortunately the weather was calm and we stayed within several hundred meters of the shore.
We reached the village about thirty minutes later, had a long talk with Auleriano, took some pictures and headed back across the bay.
We took on water all the way, with water gushing up in a couple of six-inch-high spouts. I resumed bailing as soon as we left shore, and this time Ana grabbed another empty can. We both scooped and tossed all the way back.
The water in the boat never came up over our shoes but all the way back I kept estimating how far we’d have to swim if we had to.
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THE WINDS FROM HELL
On one visit to Brazil I flew into Florianópolis on the Atlantic coast far south of Rio de Janeiro. Florianópolis is the hometown of a famous tennis player, Gustavo Kuerten, or "Guga" as he is popularly known. He would have been a very young boy the one time I went there.
The city and its airport are on an island that’s connected to the mainland by a long, high bridge. I remember the city well because I thought the jetliner I was going to crash just as we landed.
The wind cutting through the straight was so strong that the plane was jolted sideways just seconds before we touched down. The plane hit the runway hard and bounced once before the pilot brought it under control.
The next day I rented a car, and my interpreter and I drove across the bridge to the mainland. Again the wind was fierce, so strong that in the center of the bridge the car was pushed sideways half a foot or so. At least it seemed that far.
By the time we returned to Florianópolis later in the day, though, the wind had died down.
(For a guide to pronouncing unfamiliar Brazilian names, click here.)