The River: Day

· brazil ·

I stand on the wooden pontoon, looking at the river. I am on my own now, and everything is quiet and still except the river itself. The fast, relentless current makes you feel dizzy if you focus your gaze for too long at one spot. I'm determined to have a swim, but I know that it's going to be a challenge to fight the current. The pontoon creaks as I shift my weight, its boards bleached silver-grey by heat, rain and relentless sun.

I am wearing my swimming costume under my clothes, so I strip off quickly before I can chicken out, and walk to the upstream end of the pontoon. From this position, I'll have the easy downstream swim to get accustomed to the water, while still being able to grab the boards for safety. I jump in.

Cold. Breathing in, and in and in, as every cell in my body seems to try to withdraw itself simultaneously from the shock of the cold water. Every molecule of me is alive and everything is suddenly extraordinarily vivid. And... out. Finally, I manage an exhalation, and find to my surprise that the temperature is quite pleasant — brisk, but enjoyable.

I start to swim breast-stroke down stream, parallel to the pontoon. Swimming downstream is absurdly easy in this current. I feel like an otter, a dolphin, a river goddess. Everything is natural and easy. With my eyes near the surface of the water, I feel part of the river, rather than an observer of it. The air is heavy with the smell of the river: a ripe, green, damp, benignly-rotting scent like sweet compost, overlaid with the heady fragrance of jasmine from the plants on the opposite bank. The sound of my breath is amplified by the surface of the water, so that I feel as if I'm wearing a space helmet, and my world feels pleasantly contracted and intimate. I enjoy the contrast of the warm sun on my back and face and the cool water touching the rest of my body. The opaque, caramel coloured water conceals everything within it, but I'm absurdly comforted by not being able to see the many piranhas and caiman that I know are in this stretch of water. If I can't see them, I can let myself believe that they aren't there.

I've reached the end of the pier, and I hang on to the boards of the pontoon with one hand while letting my body unfurl in the current like a blade of grass dipping in the river from the bank. It's time to try the upstream swim. I take deep breaths and prepare to fight as soon as I let go of the pontoon. All trace of the river goddess has been washed away. Now I am swimming as hard and fast as I can just to stay in place, and I get a slight tinge of panic, but I am determined to win this battle. I begin to get the measure of the river, and make painful, slow progress up the pontoon, swimming harder than I've ever swum because the river never stops or slows. At last, I reach the end and grab for the boards, pulling myself in towards this man-made place of safety.

I'm breathing very hard, as if I've been trying to outrun a predator, and it's not at all goddess, otter or dolphin-like, or even very dignified. But I feel alive, supremely happy and heady with achievement. I make a few more laps of the length of the pontoon, exchanging my river goddess persona for my small, squeaky prey item persona at every turn.

Soon, I'm too tired to hold my own in the water, so I move to the pontoon to get out. I find the lowest part, which still appears to loom above me, intimidatingly high. I try to kick my legs hard and propel my body skywards, supported by my arms, but my upper body strength is puny, and the current is sweeping my legs sideways. Perhaps legs first would be easier? I hook one leg on to the flat surface of the pontoon and endeavour to haul the rest of my body after it, but it is hopeless and I get a fit of giggles imagining what an odd spectacle this would present to anyone watching from the bank. Time for Plan C.

I pull myself along to one of the wooden poles holding the navigation lights. I figure that if I grab hold of the vertical pole, then try to hook the lip of one of the big plastic drums which support the floating structure with my big toe, I might just get enough purchase to pull myself out of the water. It feels nearly impossible, and at one point I fear that I am going to have to explain in my pathetic Portuguese how I have broken their navigation lights, but eventually I flop wetly on to the deck like a newborn, panting and grimy with dirt and rust and relief.

I sit on my towel on the deck, feeling the sun dry my skin and enjoying the residual smell of river that lingers on it: distilled and finally still.