The name chimes: Tocantins.

The name is romantic, by which I mean it's pretty and also inspires highly detailed fantasy, even after you've actually been there. I find now I can scarcely remember a single physical detail of the place. I guess that means that the fantasy is self-sustaining, that the place didn't overcome its name, that - more or less conversely - the name continues to overcome the place. But I have some crisp images, and a fierce vision or two.

I was supposed to have taken the bus from Manaus to Itacoatiara, then caught a boat farther down the Amazon, but there was a strike that morning which largely nullified municipal mass transit, so I couldn't get to the intercity bus terminal on time. I knew something was seriously wrong when I saw somebody literally punch out a city bus's lights, while army helicopters thumped high overhead - the Brazilian military traditionally loses sphincter control at any sign of labor unrest. I quickly decided I'd had enough of this squalid burg, and bought a plane ticket to Santarém, halfway down the river.

Santarém was so much nicer, a breezy tropical town whose food wasn't sewage. No rat corpses in the street, either: that's always a plus. Santarém was so agreeable I knew I had to leave it before it did something neither it nor I would take pride in. So I bought a bus ticket to Marabá, the only place to go from here by road.

That was a ride. Forty-three hours with two drivers, one of whom thought he had appendicitis. He cleaned out every pharmacy in every little town we stopped in. I remember our first night out, whistling down a dirt road through dense unpunctured darkness. An eight-year-old girl wanted to be let off at a place identified only by a pole sticking out of the earth thirty yards off the road. The bus driver stopped, reluctantly, opened the door, and beeped his horn at the surrounding ten thousand square miles, notifying God knew whom of the girl's arrival. She skipped out, and disappeared. If the Earth is flat, she fell off its edge.

At midnight we stopped at a settlement with one illuminated building. I got out, stood in the bus's shadow, and relieved myself, off that same edge. I was genuinely surprised to hear it hit the ground - it could just as easily have swooped into a highly eccentric orbit around Neptune.

And I remember our second night out, when rain drummed the roof and our drivers unbolted the floorboards so they could reach and fix a faulty clutch linkage. By the time they were done, the road was too muddy to travel at night, so we all just sacked out in our seats and waited for dawn. When it came, we resumed, all able-bodied menfolk getting out and pushing the bus up slick inclines as the need arose.

For all that, for all those hundreds of miles on a dirt strip not much wider than our vehicle, between walls of greenery not much taller than our vehicle, I never felt exasperation or sensed tedium. I had been shown reserves of patience I'd never guessed I had. There was no exhaustion until I actually arrived in Marabá. I checked into a moderately expensive hotel and then looked for a restaurant where I could savor in solitude my weariness. The proprietor must have understood. While I ate, a girl came in and tried to sell me scented stationery, of all things. I told her exactly what I'd been up to for the past two days and why it left me utterly unwilling to buy anything but another cold beer. She was going to interrupt, but the proprietor, to my surprise, beat her to it.

"Forget it. He doesn't speak our language."

The girl stared at him.

"Yes, he does." But her protest was to no avail. The man's lie was transparent, but it proved I had an ally. The girl left.

I resumed moving the next day. My destination was Imperatriz. There were two routes to that town, and I made sure mine was the one that would short-cut across Tocantins. No special reason - I just wanted to be able to say I'd been there, in what was then Brazil's newest state. I had no plans to linger, and could not have done so even if I did have such plans, for as I soon saw, Tocantins was nearly as bereft of amenities as South America can be.

But after the long haul from Santarém, it was a simple pleasure. That's what Tocantins was: simple. It had barely begun to invent itself. A ribbon of gravel, primitive ranchland, unenterprising thunderclouds, listless hamlets where the most exotic sound was the uncapping of a Coke bottle. Ours was an unhurried progress, obviously, but the lack of haste seemed to have nothing to do with exhaustion or hopelessness. It was this way because all the other ways hadn't been tried out yet. My Tocantins afternoon was a comma in the history of Brazil.

My heart rate at its lowest possible, I sat at the front of the bus, next to the ticket-taker. He was a short man with a bum leg. The best parts of the trip for me, but the worst for him, were when he had to get out, walk up to one of the many wooden bridges en route, and guide the driver over the rotten timbers. The engine idled down, the door squeaked open, the little man limped out into the vacant distance. I watched him every time. At first it was kind of exciting - these bridges weren't exactly in shape to handle buses. But then it got more than just exciting. It got significant. These wordless operations, carried out in a place too young to have learned how to talk, but also a place empty enough to carry all sound unobstructed. I didn't know it then, but I do know it now: after the rim of a planet, and the wall of a jungle, I had come to the edge of an abstraction, civilization itself, to a place whose society had just barely begun to make noises for its own identity's sake.

Tocantins, Tocantins: in early 1989, that must have been music enough. I had flown close, then labored closer, in a country I knew pretty well, but certainly not perfectly, down to the lower limit of my imagination. Tocantins was as uncomplicated as a place could be and still have area codes, license plates, and a perceived shortage of secretarial help. Giving this place a name to call its own - if only it had a voice to call anything at all! - was a giant hazardous leap into the range of self-consciousness.

© 1989 J.A.Hutter

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