BANZEIRO—THIS IS WHAT THE PEOPLE of the Xingu call places where the river grows savage. Where, if you’re lucky, you can make it through; where, if you’re not, you can’t. It is a place of danger between where you’re coming from and where you want to go. If you’re rowing, you wait for the banzeiro to retract its claws or calm down. And you grow quiet, because your boat might suddenly flip over or get sucked in. You grow quiet so you won’t stir the river’s wrath.
There are no synonyms for banzeiro. Nor any translation. Banzeiro is the one that is. And is only where it is.
Since I moved to the Amazon in August 2017, the banzeiro has moved from the river to inside me. I don’t have a liver, kidneys, or stomach like other people do. I have a banzeiro. Overcome by the whirlpool, my heart beats in concentric circles, sometimes so fast it won’t let me sleep at night. And it misses the pitch, goes off-key, like a dissonant symphony. My doctor says it’s arrhythmia, but doctors don’t know about bodies that mix. White people’s doctors are obsessed with borders; they see the world like the European diplomats who sliced up Africa at a negotiation table in Berlin in 1885. Give me this heart here, they say, you take the kidney. In exchange for this leg, I’ll let you have the liver and spleen.
With this heart so forgetful of how to beat in the conventional rhythm, my insomnia sails me along. My blood has turned to water, and sometimes I feel a fish tickling my pancreas. Other times, I’m poisoned through and through by the mercury that gold miners dump in the river’s veins and in their own. I squirm, go mutant, and my gills rot away.
This didn’t happen all of a sudden; it went on happening. And it still is happening. I don’t think it’ll ever stop. The Amazon isn’t a place you can go and simply carry along your body—this sum total of bacteria, cells, and subjectivities that are you. That’s not how it works. The Amazon leaps inside you like an anaconda striking, crushing the backbone of your thoughts and stirring you in with the planet’s marrow. You no longer know your own I. People still call you by your name, and you answer; apparently your identity is intact—but what you are, you just don’t know anymore. What you’ve become has no name. Not because it doesn’t have one, but because you don’t know its language.
It is a place of danger between where you’re coming from and where you want to go
You might have noticed that all my metaphors are corporeal. They aren’t even metaphors. The Amazon literalizes everything. I can no longer follow Cartesian logic, because the body is everything and dominates everything. People who enter the forest for the first time don’t know what to do with the senses they begin to experience, with the body parts they weren’t familiar with and that suddenly will never leave them. At some point they fall ill, because their city body, accustomed to pretending it doesn’t exist so it can robotize itself in front of a computer, doesn’t know what to do with itself.
This body used to occupy 10 percent of itself, because so much was repressed, and now all 100 percent comes on at once. And the body sweats so much it drips on the ground, and it itches from blackfly bites and gets cut on spiny tucum palms and shivers from river water and is drenched in desire for bodies that weren’t on the menu before. It’s so much of an everything-all-at-once. City people get sick on their first forays into the Amazon because they overdose on body. They confuse malaria with desire for a body that didn’t know itself.
This happened to me more than twenty years ago, in the late 1990s, during the first times I went to the Amazon as a reporter. I was going to and from. And when I first went back to Porto Alegre, and then to São Paulo all the other times, I turned the key within myself until my body was once again framed within the apartment it had conformed to, because it knew the layout by heart. My body converted back into a middle-class two-bedroom apartment, but the beast who lives deep, deep inside had had a taste. And wouldn’t let itself forget.
This essay is excerpted from Eliane Brum’s latest book, Banzeiro Òkòtó: The Amazon as the Center of the World, translated from the Portuguese by Diane Whitty and published in March 2023 by Graywolf Press.