The boat’s motor has a problem and so we are beached on the white sand of the eastern bank of the Tapajos River. The moonlight has the jungle glowing, a tall green wall behind the beach that looks inviting. But when you are in it, you want to get out as soon as possible, because in the jungle, everything from the smallest insect to the biggest anaconda is trying to eat you. And everything from the tiniest worm to Chef Boy Ari is perpetually engaged in the act of trying not to get eaten.
The law of the jungle requires a certain level of callousness to the suffering of others, and such callousness can be shocking to witness. This is a story about such callousness. And it’s a story about what many consider the greatest delicacy in the Amazon.
The Rio Tapajos is 26 kilometers wide where it empties into the Amazon at the town of Santarem. I’m returning to Santarem after visiting a town called Fordlandia. The Ford Motor Company founded Fordlandia in the late 1930s as the center of Ford’s rubber program, which was part of Ford’s bid to control every aspect of its automobile empire, right down to the rubber of the tires.
Ford is long gone from Fordlandia, but the name stuck, as well as the American-style houses, the big rotting factories, the water tower and the Ford logo plastered everywhere.
I was talking to the principal of the Fordlandia school and taking pictures of the Fordlandia library when an excited teacher burst into the room.
“Come, come,” she said. “Here is something to photograph.” When I asked her what it was, I couldn’t understand her reply. The only thing I could make out was “big claws.”
I followed her into a neighboring back yard where a giant turtle lay on its back, surrounded by an excited crowd. The fishermen had pulled it in with their nets and now it was time to party.
The turtle, meanwhile, was not partying. A thin stream of bloody mucus dripped to the ground from the upside-down turtle’s face. On the ground was the hatchet that had chopped an opening between the rounded upper shell and the flat lower shell.
The turtle was far from dead when an old man, with two younger assistants, sat the turtle up and began cutting along the perimeter of the lower shell, sometimes pounding the machete with a hammer, pulling the bottom plate away from the animal and exposing its quivering guts while the turtle kicked and squirmed.
“Why don’t you kill it?” I asked.
“How old do you think it is?”
They shrugged. “Maybe 100 years.”
The turtle lay on its back, legs kicking and head swaying. The bottom plate, cast aside, was licked by an eager puppy. The old man began removing the guts. He knew exactly where to cut. His strokes were swift and accurate.
“What do you do with the shell?” I asked. He pointed toward the window, though which I could see a painted turtle shell hanging on the wall. It looked old. Next to the painted shell was a painting of the Last Supper.
The eviscerated turtle was still kicking and squirming as the old man cut behind the shoulders, separating the turtle from its upper shell. The young men, holding the turtle upright while the old man worked, giggled and chastised the turtle when it tried to scratch them.
“Can I take a picture?”
They looked at me suspiciously. “Don’t show the picture to IBAMA [the Brazilian equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency],” they said.
I nodded my understanding that this was illegal, but when I pulled out my camera their fear bested their pride and they scattered, after quickly adjusting the turtle into a humiliating pose.
Soon there were two sections of turtle in a plastic tub: the front legs and shoulders, connected to the head, still swaying in disbelief, and the rear legs, no longer kicking. The old man removed the tenderloins from the shell and put them in the tub. “Filet mignon,” he said.
The flesh was dark red, like raw beef. I knelt down and put my nose close to the raw flesh and took a big whiff. I smelled nothing. “How are you going to cook it?”
“We are going to marinate it in spices and eat it on Sunday.”
I was relieved to know that on Sunday I would be long gone from Fordlandia and would not be tempted to take the sacrament of turtle flesh.
My friend Gustavo, whom I met while we were beached on the shore of the Rio Tapajos, claims there is nothing as tasty as turtle meat. Maybe he’s right. But maybe my stomach isn’t cut out for the jungle.