Grenada, West Indies
June 23, 2000
It is a misconception that you sleep in a hammock with your feet at one end and your head at the other. Youll fall out. The proper way to do it is to lie diagonally, cutting across the hammocks width. The Wapushani Indians of Southern Guyana, who along with their neighbors the Macuxi make the worlds best hammocks, sometimes sit entirely sideways in theirs. They make them from just one, perhaps a few, strands of rope, woven back and forth like a fishing net. You could hang an elephant in one and it wouldnt break. It is nearly impossible to fall out of a Wapushani hammock, because they are long, broad ovals that catch you no matter how you move (mothers trust their babies to them). If you happen to go to southern Guyana, and range far enough into the savannahs to reach one of the villages, you will find the people using them like chairs, sitting upright, stable and confident.
The nearby gold miners do not have the money for artisanal hammocks, and they are not usually Indians, so they dont get their beds made by an aunt and hung in the family home. They use inferior hammocks, though still better than most available in North America. Rather than a net, a miners hammock is a large cloth rug, usually decorated with a colorful design, tied to poles in the mining camp with thick nylon rope. The rope in the Wapushani hammock is soft and deceptively plain-looking, like old twine, integral to the rest of the weaving. In the miners hammock it is a crude graft of the annoying, yellow rope often used for pool rafts in North America. It frays easily and tends to refuse knots, but costs little and rarely breaks.
Despite their rough construction, the rug-and-nylon hammocks are better suited to the jungle, where the miners work; at night, you can pull half the cloth over yourself to keep out mosquitoes, which carry diseases, starting with malaria and heading sharply downhill from there. The hammocks are also solid fabric, which is important. Small but serious creatures on the forest floor, for example a Bushmaster snake, cant see through the fabric to your sweaty skin, or smell you quite as clearly, and may pass by none the wiser.
I am saying all this not to expose the tremendous quantity of hammock disinformation in the Northern Hemisphere (now entering prime hammock season), but for a more selfish reason. In three months I will be heading to Guyana to research gold mining. I am going to write a book about it. This will involve several weeks in the area where they find the gold, part of the Northern Amazon, and that means sleeping in a hammock. Ive never spent that long in one, and wonder about how it will go.
Can you take notes in a hammock? I did once before, but not for such a long time. I was on a very speculative attempt to write a magazine article about gold mining in the northern Amazon, and had come from Brazil to Guyana by bus and truck. The electricity came on for four hours at night in the towns, and not at all outside them, but I had a typewriter with me. I was so proud: this was the same route Evelyn Waugh and before that Walter Raleigh, and before that Alexander Humboldt and the Dutch cartographer Schomburgk had taken through the same jungle, after all, and there I was, nobody, clomping into town with a small backpack and an old typewriter, bought at a garage sale in Washington D.C. for ten dollars. Of course I couldnt use it at first. Not only did it not have a "delete" key or a cut/paste function, which nearly paralyzed me, there was also nowhere to put the thing. I tried setting it up on the only horizontal fixture in town, a plywood bar under a shaky tin shelter, but the tapping upset the pennyweight scale at the bars far end, where they measured out the gold dust that the miners were trading for bottles of rum. They did not take kindly to the possibility of my tapping upsetting the gold dust. Other than the bar, all there was for furniture in the camp were hammocks, and a 1962 steel Smith-Corona is not ideally suited to a hammock. Still, I tried. Every time I punched a key the hammock swayed and the typewriter tilted and fell to the ground. The ground itself, which I also tried, was, though not hopelessly muddy, not good to sit in for long periods. So I took notes in a small pad with a flashlight in my mouth, then waited to begin typing everything out until I had caught a plane to Trinidad, where Walter Raleigh had come to grief on a similar pursuit.
From Trinidad I took a sailboat to Grenada. The sailboat tilted profoundly, and it was hard not to stay below deck without vomiting, but halfway through the passage I got things arranged with twine and battens on the galley table, where I could type when I was off watch. This being a sailboat table, keeping things level was out of the question. A few sail ties, normally wrapped around the relaxed sail while at anchor, held the typewriter to some pieces of wood. Then more ties held the battens to the tables corners, with enormous knots that would embarrass a real sailor. Still, it worked. It was loud, being a manual typewriter, but the captain did not mind because it kept me off the deck, where I had proven to be more trouble than I was worth.
I was the least experienced sailor, so had few jobs to do, and had also gotten on the captains nerves by throwing up on the wrong side of the boat (you are supposed to get seasick over the lee rail, not the upwind rail, for the same reason you shouldnt spit in the wind, only more so). So I typed out the jungle experience below deck and did only a little actual sailing, then flew home to write my book proposal, which sold two weeks ago or, if you prefer, three years later, a process far more complicated and difficult than finding my way through Guyana.
For the book, I will probably use the typewriter, which I still have, again. It is a peculiarity of the worlds development systems that places still without much electricity often have phones. In my past three trips, it was the case that a fax machine was fairly easy to find in the Amazon. I can take all my pages, then catch the truck through to the logging project near a place called Mabura Hill, and fax them home as I go. With the fax there, Ill only have to bring a hammer and nails and build a small stool for the typewriter, then sit sideways in the hammock in front of it, as the Wapushani demonstrate. The fact is, we like books about jungle adventures, but no one has yet figured out how to write one on site, which is sometimes necessary. I know others have done it from notes, but I do not trust myself for accuracy if I dont do it right there, as things happen. If I have a typewriter and stool, I think its possible.