CHAPTER II. THE SOCIAL AND POLITICAL LIFE OF REMATE DE MALES
The social life of the town is in about the same stage of development as it must have been during the Stone Age. When darkness falls over the village, as it does at six o'clock all the year round, life practically stops, and a few hours afterwards everyone is in his hammock.
There is one resort where the town-sports come to spend their evenings, the so-called Recreio Popular. Its principal patrons are seringueiros, or rubber-workers, who have large rolls of money that they are anxious to spend with the least possible effort, and generally get their desire over the gaming boards. The place is furnished with a billiard table and a gramophone with three badly worn records. The billiard table is in constant use by a certain element up to midnight, and so are the three eternal records of the gramophone. It will take me years surrounded by the comforts of civilisation to get those three frightful tunes out of my head, and I do not see how they could fail to drive even the hardened seringueiros to an early grave.
Another resort close by, where the native cachassa is sold, is patronised principally by negroes and half-breeds. Here they play the guitar, in combination with a home-made instrument resembling a mandolin, as accompaniment to a monotonous native song, which is kept up for hours. With the exception of these two places, the village does not furnish any life or local colour after nightfall, the natives spending their time around the mis-treated gramophones, which are found in almost every hut.
The men of the village, unlike the women, are not picturesque in appearance. The officials are well paid, so is everyone else, yet they never think of spending money to improve the looks of the village or even their own. Most of them are ragged. A few exhibit an inadequate elegance, dressed in white suits, derby hats, and very high collars. But in spite of the seeming poverty, there is not a seringueiro who could not at a moment's notice produce a handful of bills that would strike envy to the heart of many prosperous business men of civilisation. The amount will often run into millions of reis; a sum that may take away the breath of a stranger who does not know that one thousand of these Brazilian reis make but thirty cents in our money.
The people of the Amazon love to gamble. One night three merchants and a village official came to the hotel to play cards. They gathered around the dining-room table at eight o'clock, ordered a case of Pabst beer, which sells, by the way, at four dollars and sixty cents a bottle in American gold, and several boxes of our National Biscuit Company's products, and then began on a game, which resembles our poker. They played till midnight, when they took a recess of half an hour, during which large quantities of the warm beer and many crackers were consumed. Then, properly nourished, they resumed the game, which lasted until six o'clock the next morning. This was a fair example of the gambling that went on.
The stakes were high enough to do honours to the fashionable gamblers of New York, but there was never the slightest sign of excitement. At first I used to expect that surely the card table would bring forth all sorts of flashes of tropic temperament - even a shooting or stabbing affair. But the composure was always perfect. I have seen a loser pay, without so much as a regretful remark, the sum of three million and a half reis, which, though only $1050 in our money, is still a considerable sum for a labourer to lose.
Once a month a launch comes down from Iquitos in Peru, about five days' journey up the Amazon. This launch is sent out by Iquitos merchants, to supply the wants of settlers of the rubber estates on the various affluents. It is hard to estimate what suffering would result if these launches should be prevented from reaching their destinations, for the people are absolutely dependent upon them, the region being non-producing, as I have said, and the supplies very closely calculated. In Remate de Males, the superintendent, or the mayor of the town, generally owns a few head of cattle brought by steamer, and when these are consumed no meat can be had in the region but Swift's canned "Corned Beef."
Then there are the steamers from the outer world. During the rainy season, the Mauretania could get up to Remate de Males from the Atlantic Ocean without difficulty, though there is no heavy navigation on the upper Javary River. But steamers go up the Amazon proper several days' journey farther. You can at the present get a through steamer from Iquitos in Peru down the Amazon to New York.
These boats occasionally bring immigrants from the eastern portions of Brazil, where they have heard of the fortunes to be made in working the rubber, and who have come, just as our prospectors came into the West, hoping to take gold and their lives back with them. Besides passengers, these boats carry cattle and merchandise and transport the precious rubber back to Para and Manaos. They are welcomed enthusiastically. As soon as they are sighted, every man in town takes his Winchester down from the wall and runs into the street to empty the magazine as many times as he feels that he can afford in his exuberance of feeling at the prospect of getting mail from home and fresh food supplies.