I have many memories of my early childhood, but they all seem rather fleeting and uncertain. I don’t entirely trust them. Listening to my grown children tell stories of their pre-school days I have come to understand that many of our memories from that age are actually fantasies: the events, if they occurred, happened quite differently than we remember them. We cling to them and cherish them none-the-less.
I was born in Manaus in the early 1960’s; at the time a rough, hot, humid mid-sized town drawing its meager life from the mighty Amazon river – “the armpit of South America”, a fellow Brazilian once described it to me. My memories are of life at the mission station some 40 kilometers down-river: the Amazon like a vast brown tide-less ocean in front of our door, the exotic reptiles and insects, the pet parrot, the dug-out canoes, kerosene lamps, heavy rain on tin roofs, and the awesome beauty of a clear starry night far removed from the pollution of any human light.
My playmates were my younger brother, Paul, and Tommy, and sometimes Sandra. Tommy was the oldest and the leader of our troupe until he started school. When I started a year later I was sent home on my first day to retrieve my flip-flops – one must wear shoes at school! We would run around freely, playing in the clay soil along the river banks, picking through the smoldering heaps at the communal rubbish burn, stealing sticky elastic strings from the rubber trees before the rubber gatherers collected them, or daring each other into the dark paths that led deep into the jungle. We wore flip-flops and shirts when our mothers insisted, but more often only our shorts, and sometimes we threw those off as well. Tommy liked to play a game he called “Nasty Doctor”: we would shed all our clothes in order to inspect and compare out kit, or see who could pee the farthest. Sandra joined us only once in this, if I recall correctly, being sorely disadvantage in the peeing contest.
One of my favorite places of solitude in Amsterdam is the jungle room at the botanical gardens, the Hortus Botanicus. “Solitude” is a bit of a stretch, because invariably there are others who wander in and out while I’m there. But if I go at the right time, sit on the right bench, and face into the jungle foliage just after it has received its morning drenching from overhead sprinklers, the air moist and warm, I evoke the memory of a long-ago place in a long-lost age of innocence. It is not real – no insects or birds, no hidden dangers – but it is real enough. I am drawn in by the vague recollection that it was in such a place my spirit first became aware of another Presence. Of standing alone on a jungle path, the others having gone on ahead, knowing I was not alone.
My trips to Hortus are less frequent now; I don’t live around the corner like I used to, no longer have a member’s pass to go in anytime I wish. But from time to time it still draws me, the longing in me growing till again I must make my pilgrimage. I need to know, need the assurance, the comfort, that even though I am irretrievably removed in time, distance, culture and a myriad of complications from choices good and bad, the vulnerable, barefoot little boy standing quietly on a dense jungle path, at the edge of memory and civilization, is today still not alone.