What is a Caboclo?
What is a Caboclo? It was a question I asked, when some years ago I met my friend Moacir Fortes. “It means people who live on the river, we are all Caboclos” he said, looking up the river from the bridge of his 84’ expedition boat “ Victoria Amazonica”.
The Amazon River has been Moacirs whole existence. Oh sure, he’s traveled in Europe, the U.S. and throughout South America, but the river is his livelihood and his life. And yes, he is conversant in English, German, French, Spanish, and some of the Indian dialects. He acquired these language skills as he worked on the river taking explorers, adventurers, researchers, and scientists up and down the branches of the Amazon in his boats. The Indian dialect he learned from his Grandmother who was pure Indio.
His boats weren’t always as grand as the “Victoria”. Mo was born in 1943, far away in the forest in a little village on a tributary of the Solimoes River which forms one branch of the Amazon River. The “Ecuapia” tributary is between the towns of Tefe and Coari. When Mo was 10 years old his father started building a 12 meter dugout canoe. Building the canoe took one year, and when Mo was 11 his father and mother took their family of 9 children down river to Coari, a city of about 1000 people, where they hoped to find more opportunity. Mo went to Catholic primary school and high school there. He began to learn English when an American nun taught the children their “hail Mary’s” in English. Mo thought it was a beautiful language to listen to, and learned it for no other reason. He later helped the new priests learn Portuguese, and of course, learned English by doing so. By the time he was out of school he spoke reasonable English.
The Mayor of Coari offered the top three students in his class an opportunity to travel to Manaus and continue their education. Mo, second in his class, was on his way. He traveled to Manaus on his God father’s boat, who was going there with a cargo of bananas to sell. In Manaus, Mo, now 18, saw many things he’d not seen before, among them, an automobile.
An older sister of his living in Manaus gave him a place to put his hammock in her home, and he went around town looking for work. In Coari he had learned cabinet making, so in Manaus he began repairing and refinishing furniture while he attended accounting school. He went to work in a small cabinet shop, where one day a Canadian man who spoke no Portuguese came to have some boxes built for shipping tropical fish. Mo translated for the man, who was as amazed as the shop owner that this Caboclo boy spoke English. The Canadian offered Mo a job translating for him at a wage of 10 crusados. He was earning 7 crusados in the shop, or about $18.00 a week. Although he wanted the job very much, he was unsure how to reply correctly in English. As he searched for the right words the Canadian increased his offer to 12 crusados. Mo was so excited at this generous offer that he “lost his English” and could not reply. The next and final offer was 15 crusados. Mo, overwhelmed at his good fortune managed a “YES”. Imagine the shock at the end of his first day of translating when the man reached in his pocket and paid him his first wage of 15 crusados. The offer having been per day, not per week. Moacir’s fortunes had suddenly changed.
The next job was at the Hotel Amazonas. Although hired as a translator he found himself carrying luggage a good bit of the time and not allowed to ride on the elevators. His eagerness to speak English, and his good humor got him opportunities to visit people in the U.S. whom he’d met and assisted at the hotel. He visited the Mormons in Independence Missouri, where he saw “Mr. Truman” standing in a hotel window. On another trip to New Jersey he went on a train into a big hole and came out on 43rd street New York . He danced at “your fathers mustache” and found that he really didn’t have to marry (as he’d been told by his grandmother) the girl when they stayed out past midnight together.
In 1971 Mo was invited to Germany and became frustrated at not understanding the language, so in 1974 returned intending to spend a year learning German. The family he stayed with sent him to the Berlitz school and he repaid them by driving their elderly father who could no longer drive himself. 6 months later, a little homesick, he returned to Manaus, able to speak German, and anxious to be back on the river.
He was always offered his old job back at the Hotel Amazonas when he returned from his travels. Now he really was the interpreter and had to sometimes wear a tie when he met people at the airport. Always polite, but eager to speak other languages, Moacir found many opportunities similar to his first translations at the cabinet shop.
This led to him offering canoe trips to back packers and more “adventurous” clients. At first he rented a canoe powered by a 6 HP Evinrude outboard that he’d purchased himself. His canoe tours were very popular with foreign guests who wanted to experience the Amazon. Sleeping was a problem in the little canoe so his wife Dora made jungle hammocks to keep the mosquitoes away. 4 people were the ideal number for these trips and Mo ventured deeper and deeper into the rainforest. He went up into Peru and Columbia. He became friends with the Indios along the way who fed the travelers and let them sleep in their villages. In 1986 a back problem caused Moacir to slow down the canoe trips. He found an American partner, formed Amazonia Expeditions and they began to build a boat together to use for expeditions on the River. Although that partnership and boat didn’t work out Mo persevered with his boat plans and began building the “Cichla Ocellaris” for himself in Novo Airao, a small village on the Rio Negro. He planned on finishing it in 5 years. One of his clients on a canoe trip became interested in the new boat and asked why it would take so long to complete. Moacir explained that the diesel engine, or “machine” was very expensive. The man wrote out a check for the machine and told him to pay back the money when he could. Another bit of good fortune for Mo who by this time was known on the river as a man who was the best guide in Amazonia, and more importantly, always kept his word. Three years later he began building his second expedition boat in Novo Airao, the “Harpy Eagle”, and in 2000 he began the Victoria Amazonica. Now in 2004 the newest boat “Dorinha” is nearing completion. It is his largest and finest boat which he designed himself as he did his other boats.
Meanwhile in 1972 a German ship that was used for exploring around the world came up the Amazon River and Mo was invited to accompany them as the interpretive guide. He became the interpretive guide on most of the large ships that ventured up to explore Amazonia opening up even more opportunities and ideas to Moacir. He found that while it was difficult for Germans to fly to Manaus Brasil and go on expeditions with Mo’s boats, the transportation was easy from the United States and Ecology minded Americans were eager to see first hand what they had heard so much about. Universities, palm experts, specialized study groups, and botanical gardens began to charter his boats. Through these clients Mo and his family learned an incredible amount about the rainforest which they were able to teach those who traveled the waters with them. Advertising wasn’t necessary because every group that traveled the rivers with Mo became agents for him. He preferred to charter the boats through them, thus insuring that everyone came as friends and similar interest groups to share their knowledge and experience with each other. They all became a part of Mo’s constantly growing family of River People. Moacir’s knowledge, enthusiasm and charm is infectious. It is impossible not to thoroughly enjoy yourself on one of his exploring expeditions. Many if not most clients return year after year to wander up the waterways of the Amazon with their friends, relatives, or students.
Moacir Fortes and his family are people worth knowing. They are truly a “bridge” between Amazonia and those of us who travel there. They are a breath of very fresh air in an often complex and cynical world.