The Clean State (and Chicken)

If people would spend the same time to research the next laptop they plan to buy as they spend to think about their lives, they would come home with an electric blanket.

I was remembering the phrase that made me go on this trip, as I embarked on a small vessel in the river port of Manaus, the inofficial “capital of the Amazon,” and an island of modern civilization in an ocean of impenetrable jungle.

After finishing my diploma thesis earlier that year, I had decided to postpone my career, and use some travel time to seriously think about my life. Now, in the middle of thousands of Brazilians screaming way to fast Portuguese for me to understand, throwing firecrackers because of some obscure holiday, drinking Cachaça, and dancing to the newest Forró hits that had made it to the jungle, I was asking myself if this was the adequate place for my endeavor: I really didn’t want to come home with an electric blanket, but I wasn’t sure if I would find anything better on this trip.

Until now, the voyage had been absolutely pleasant, but it hadn’t lead to the bigger insights I was waiting for: I had enjoyed traveling with two dear friends through the Orinoco and the llanos of Venezuela; I had biked through the wonderful mesa landscape near Santa Elena del Uairén; and I had gotten a lot of new impressions, ranging from horrible Venezuelan light beers to the currency black market in Arab-owned shops all over the country.

What had been missing, maybe, was the time and place for some real reflection – and seeing the scene at the harbor, I wasn’t quite sure if I would find it aboard.

I didn’t know yet how unfounded my worries were, when I put up my hammock among the ones of about three hundred other people who were about to accompany my week-long trip to the frontier with Colombia and Peru, some 800 miles upstream the second longest river in the world. Coincidentally, it was precisely on this old vessel where I would find what I was looking for, even though it would be quite different from what I had imagined.

Life Aboard

You see, life on a combined merchant and passenger ship on the Amazon is pretty repetitive: Either you get on a party vessel where everybody drinks Cachaça until they drop, day after day, night after night – or you get on a ship with a captain that’s a member of some dubious Christian sect and doesn’t allow booze on board. By pure chance, I got on one of the latter, and while I wouldn’t have guessed it, this wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened.

The day aboard would begin around 6am, when crew members started to shout and run around, and breakfast was served. Everybody would rush to the small kitchen to get some cookies that tasted like turf, and a plastic cup of oversweetened coffee. Afterwards, some people would take a shower in one of the four or five bathrooms, while the rest would just go back to their hammocks and wait for lunch.

Lunch, that meant rice, beans, and frango (chicken). Every day.

After lunch, one would wait for dinner.

Dinner, that meant rice, beans, and frango. Every day. Day after day.

The frango diet was so intense that it made me write a song, that due to my limited Portuguese just goes like “Frango, frango, frango,” repeated in different melodies from cheesy Latin American pop songs.

People on board liked the song, because they liked the frango.

As you would really mess up your back by lying 24 hours a day in a hammock, most of us would normally walk around the boat quite a bit: Checking out the storage area on the first deck downstairs, or having a cold beer in the small cafeteria on the upper deck. (Beer, opposed to Cachaça, wasn’t prohibited by God, or the Captain, or whoever decided on those matters.) One would talk to the other travelers, mostly Brazilians who went back to the remote villages they lived in, or to one of the five other foreigners on board, traveling from Colombia, Argentina, and Portugal.

Apart from that, not too much was happening.

The Joys of Uneventfulness

The funny thing about this trip is that there isn’t really much to say about it – and, still, there would probably be enough material for a whole book.

Considering the low level of activity, the long lines to get some really boring food, the shabby showers, plus the fact that you couldn’t leave, it was a bit like a floating jail. On the other hand, all the “inmates” were so nice, and the atmosphere so relaxed, you could just as well call it a meditational retreat.

All we saw, apart from ourselves, was nature. When we were driving close to the shore, we could see the monkeys playing in the trees. At times, we had torrential rains for hours – at other times, the sun burnt so hot we could barely stand it, and there were always some electrical storms going on somewhere nearby, so we could observe the lightning.

The atmosphere of this uneventful (yet still enjoyable and – in an uncommon way – surprisingly interesting) part of the trip was precisely the atmophere I needed to reflect: After four days of nonstop travel, I was lying in my hammock, looking at the forest and the occasional hut passing by – and it simply was the most relaxed state of mind I ever had experienced.

Not that my life had been utterly stressful before, but after finishing a large layout job, writing my thesis, getting sick, moving out from my apartment, and all things related, I had noticed the necessity to reduce my pace of life, in order to think about what to do next. That sunny day, in that scuffed hammock, on that old vessel somewhere on the Amazon, I slowed down so much that I was barely breathing anymore. If at that moment a physician would have tried to take my pulse, he probably wouldn’t have found one.

A Lesson in Tempo Giusto

The ultimate reduction of speed I experienced aboard that vessel on the Amazon was the tempo giusto equivalent of “going to space,” as described in chapter 4 of Beyond Rules: Sometimes, we need a clean state.

Sometimes, we need to let go of all the things that distract us, stress us, make us nervous, keep us occupied; we have to escape day-to-day business and busy-ness, in order to get our head clear. As for any serious situation in life, there is a Tyler Durden quote to dramatize it a little: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

Of course, we don’t have to literally lose everything – but we have to let go of it at times. It wasn’t that I reached tempo giusto there on the boat. Tempo giusto means slow as little as it does mean fast. It means the right speed.

But it was the ultimate slow-down to the clean state of zero that gave me the opportunity to consecutively speed up again, and then find my personal speed of life – and that was what I was subsconsciously looking for all the time, even though I didn’t know it when starting my trip.

On the Amazon, finding the answers to my questions was as simple as seeing the sun set in the river in front of me, sitting in the bow of the ship; only to turn around, and go to the stern, in order to see the full moon rise from the same river behind us.

It meant creating a clean state by doing nothing; creating a clean state by stopping to do anything; creating a clean state by stopping to try to do anything; by accepting that the solution to the riddle might not be something I could find by force, but rather by simply being receptive.

As improbable as it sounds, letting go of it all – trusting in the power of our idle brain – sometimes is exactly what enables us to understand what it is that we have to do, and to get moving again.

In this sense, a clean state can serve as a platform: A platform to build upon; creating precisely the thing we want to create, or simply coping contentedly with whatever it is that life is giving us. Even if it’s just rice, and beans, and a mouthful of Brazilian chicken.

This is the first part of my Amazon story (mentioned in Beyond Rules), that many people had asked me about by mail. In the second part next week, I will take you into the middle of the jungle, to join an Indian feast.

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