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An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

Chased by a Storm

This is perhaps my most memorable experience in the Amazonian state of Pará - riding with teammates on the rear bed of Jon Nishi's Mitsubishi pickup truck.

We had spent the day on the river having embarked from the small town of Abaetetuba, nestled along the Amazon tributary of Rio Tocantins. Now it was time to begin our trip back to the Japanese farming colony of Tomé Açu (Toe-may ah-su) in northern Brazil.

The truck had an extended cab, which seated six people inside while three of us sat outside with our team luggage in the truck bed. Being on the outside of a truck doesn't sound like an ideal seating situation, but I wouldn't trade that afternoon ride for anything. As we drove through the rainforest, looking back across clear-cut fields that stretched for miles, the sun began to set.

The sky held a wonderful variety of colors: pink, orange, violet and red. As we rumbled and bounced along this pothole-filled road, we were able to look out on the countryside and take in the beauty.

Darin, Al and I had our backs against the frame of the truck cab. We faced the rear of the truck, peering through the clouds of dust behind us, seeing where we had been. Off in the distance, as the skies darkened with clouds, we could see flashes of lightning, contrasted against the growing darkness. As we drove, we could see the storm coming toward us.

It's an interesting phenomenon in Brazil. You can actually see rainfall. I've seen it elsewhere down there. I've not seen this in LA because we don't have such a clear view of the horizon. What I mean is that you can see the trail of the rain coming down as a dark pillar. Not coming straight down, but curving left and right as it fell miles away. As fast as we were traveling away from it, the storm raced to catch us and the skies became darker. Lightning flashing across the sky. Think of the movie “Twister,“ without all the drama.

The three of us had been sitting on blue plastic tarp and decided that with the rain fast approaching we should arrange the tarp and ourselves to get the best protection. With the truck traveling between 80 and 100 kmh, we unfolded the tarp, held on as it flapped noisily in the wind, and spread it out over our team's luggage and over the three of us.

Just in time. Large drops began to fall. You learn why they call it the rainforest when you experience the size and quantity of water that comes down from the sky. We covered ourselves as best we could and hunched down for the onslaught of the storm.

Somewhere under that tarp, I fell asleep. It's incredible if you think about it. Bouncing along at sixty mph on that dirt road, rain falling down, covered by a blue plastic tarp. I fell asleep. When the tarp was lifted off of us, I found that we had arrived in Quatro Bocas de Tomé Açu. The truck was sitting in front of a Japanese restaurant! Imagine a Japanese restaurant in the middle of the Amazon rainforest!

I was to learn that the presence of Japanese was not so unusual. Not so amazing actually if you think about the number of immigrants who had come to this area to try their luck and put their hopes in farming. Many had come to farm pepper.

But pepper seemed to have gone bust and many Japanese looked for other ways to make a living. A restaurant made sense. Not a fancy place. The seating was picnic tables and benches.

As I slowly awoke, it felt like my body was frozen in fetal position. I had been sleeping in that cramped position under that tarp for a couple of hours. And now as I tried to climb out of the truck bed, my bones creakily unwound as if under protest. It was like I had suddenly become an eighty-year-old man! My younger team members kindly helped me out of the truck and we made our way into the restaurant.

I knew I wanted to write about this one day. Not the part about feeling like an old man. No, I wanted to write about the view out of the bed of that truck, looking over the Amazon rainforest. The colors. The humidity. The rain. But now that I'm actually writing, the words fail me. There's no way to describe the feeling I had seeing the incredible power and diversity of nature.

You'll have to take my word for it. It was unforgettable!

©2009 John Katagi

adventures amazon Brazil pará sansei south america travel

About this series

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.