Amazon River, Day 19 and 20, The Search for Fordlandia
30 March 2012 | Tapajos River, Brazil
At Santarem the clear blue waters of the Tapajos River flow into the muddy brown of the Amazon in an epic spectacle of conspicuous collision. On the docks we met a man named Elvis who told us of an abandoned American village deep up the river and overran by jungle called Fordlandia. Started by Henry Ford nearly a century ago the place sounded more like legend than truth and so we took it upon ourselves to find it.
At first with directions that the ruins of Fordlandia was 30 miles up the Tapajos River, we set off only to discover nothing but jungle. As I had promised the crew it would be a quick trip then back the civilization of Santarem at least one mutinous groan was heard when I discovered another proposed site for Fordlandia an additional 100 miles up the Tapajos.
After a full day and night of motoring I decided to pull over and ask directions. We happened to pull over at the small town of Aviero where like at any other place we stopped the pier was soon crowded with inquisitive locals. However, these locals, upon hearing we were American asked if we knew the other American, Patrick, and quickly lead us over to small raft made of jungle logs. Patrick is the only American we had seen in the Amazon and is a bit of a local legend. He had started his journey a couple hundred kilometers upstream and was floating down river on a tiny raft he had built himself from jungle logs. Upon seeing the raft the first thing Molly said was 'Huckleberry Finn', while Diego and I wondered how he steered. Upon meeting the 22 year old Texan, he lead us through town where we ate a free meal at the Mayor's house (free daily meals to anyone in town). He explained how to find Fordlandia by looking for the American style water tower and that it was only another 30 kilometers further up river.
Moving on that afternoon, by dusk we still hadn't found the water tower and decided to ask some fisherman on the river if they knew where Fordlandia was. On approach we watched them pull in a four foot catfish and seeing we were curious invited us aboard. With foot long whiskers and eyes on top of his head the alien looking catfish (known locally as the dorado) was a sight to see. Diego and I joined in the fishing activities, catching a few dorado ourselves in the large nets. By now dark, the fisherman explained the lights to look for to find Fordlandia and cut up a dorado for us to eat that night. Stephen says it was the best cat fish he ever had.
Following the fishermans directions we docked by midnight amongst a chorus of river frogs. We woke in the morning to find several people peering in the boat along with the local journalist ready to give us an interview (apparently they don't get many sailboats up here). We could now clearly see that American style water tower (just like the ones you see in every small town across the Midwest) jutting from the jungle but far from being uninhabited there were 3000 native Brazilians living amongst the Ford ruins.
Wanting a way for cheaper way to make rubber for his tires, Henry Ford, had dumped $200 million (in todays dollars) into creating a mini American town to support his rubber tree plantation in the middle of the Amazon. Not realizing rubber trees cant grow in the Amazon (where they are native) in close proximity to one another (as they do in the Malaysia plantations) the entire operation was a failure especially after synthetic rubber came around in 1945. Although all the Americans have long since left, and the golf course long since taken back by the jungle, much still remains of what Ford had built. Walking through the huge tire making factories we came across abandoned lathes, presses and all sorts of heavy machinery (all US made and some stamped from 1903). The old hospital, now without a roof, is home to so many bats that when walking through it we had some hit us as they flew around in frantic swarms. The water tower proudly displays its 'Pittsburg Steel Co' stamp with jungle vines wrapping its way around its supports. But the most surreal was the American Villa where concrete swimming pools, sidewalks, old fashion fire hydrants, lampposts, and perfectly lined rows of trees decorate the boulevard of mostly abandoned American style homes built here in the 1920s. A few rubber trees remain and some of our local friends cut one with a machete and showed us how to make an eraser from its sweet milk by simply rubbing it together between your fingers.
Back at the boat we did some mast jumps with our new friends before saying our goodbyes and casting off. For the first time since Belem we headed down river but our impellor went out (common problem on muddy rivers) causing the engine to overheat and so we pulled back into Aviero (the cleanest town in South America) to meet up with Huck Finn (Patrick). Stephen had to nearly sacrifice himself to stop Bubbles from crashing into the dock as the current pushed us into it. Huck took us to watch a local soccer match after which a party and fireworks commenced in the streets. Everyone in the town knew and loved Huck and it appeared he would never be able to leave the place and carry on down river. We ate another free meal at the Mayors house and by 3 am were sailing once again now with 20 knots of wind on the nose, heavy rain, lightning, river islands, and barge traffic. Good to be sailing.