How To Milk A Rubber Tree

Yeah I know, day four of a three day jungle trip. Maths was never my strong point… I was meant to leave yesterday after rice, beans and over-salted meat time but I was easily coerced into an extra night with the promise of the paddling yesterday afternoon. Anyway, my extra night also got me a trip to a see a local guy who taps the rubber from the trees on his land to make boots, gloves, wallets and condoms. Yes. Condoms. Thick, reusable, washable condoms. Hilarious. My only experience of condoms is filling them with water to throw out of a 7th floor flat window at passers by below. These ones certainly wouldn’t meet my condom related needs.

Our general mode of transportation for the last few days.

Now I knew rubber came from trees, that was just an accepted fact in my mind, but it never occurred to me how exactly the rubber is extracted from the trees and in what form. I just never thought about it. Rubber comes from trees and that’s that. So what they do is cut a groove on a slant in the tree and stick a vessel underneath it to catch the white, rubber sap. This has to be done early in the morning before it gets too hot or the rubber will get too sticky and it actually has that distinct rubber smell too. I have no idea why this surprised me. Rubber smells like rubber? No shit, Sherlock. There’s a way of doing it so you don’t kill the trees; Once a tree is old enough to be cut you start at the bottom and work your way up the tree over time. Once you’ve gotten as high as your ladder will go, the bottom of the tree has healed and renewed so you can start hacking at it again and the older trees are covered in black, dried rubber with the deep cut marks in them. Emo trees. Nobody understands them and I hate you and I wish I’d never been born.

First you have to cut the tree, but in a way that won’t kill it.

This fella has been doing this for years as did his father and his father before him. They’re an old family and in fact it was his grandfather, José Fransisco Maia, who settled here in order to make a difference in the community, improve the education system etc. The local school is named after him and he started the rubber tapping by accident. He made himself a pair of rubber boots with the trees that happened to be there so he could go walking around his land without getting his toes wet, next thing you know all his neighbours wanted a pair. Sweet. Bit of extra cash then ay.

Stick some manner of collection vessel at the bottom of the fresh cuts.

We were shown how the rubber was dried onto a mould to make various things and told about the history of the rubber boom in the 19th century which is the reason Manaus has so many sprawling suburbs and is so overcrowded. 2 million people in that one, small, Amazonian town. The tale of the rubber boom is a familiar one; Money could be made from a natural resource which was controlled by the European Rubber Barons, mainly the English. See, this is what I don’t get. Portugal, Spain, Holland, they can wander in and take as much land as they want from anywhere. As soon as the English steal a bit of land and enslave a few people its like, “You bastards!” and we don’t live it down for hundreds of years. Anyway, enslave them we did and sent them out into the jungle to tap rubber at night then made them work all day to dry the rubber into huge balls to sell to the Asians.

I mean obviously we’re not talking large scale rubber production here.

They were raking it in. Shit loads of cash, minimal worker expenses (all they had to do was feed them enough to keep them alive and even then if they got eaten by something in the jungle or died they’d just replace them), they squandered their money on the most insane things. They sent their clothes to France to be washed, they brought posh folks over from Europe on huge cruise ships, all expenses paid. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they kept the softest notes in the bogs for wiping their arses. They never planned for the future because they didn’t think it was ever going to end. It all went tits up when Asia started growing their own damn rubber thankyouverymuch and they were much better at it to as Asians so often are. The English retreated back to England to drink tea and eat fish and chips for the rest of their days.

Build yourself a little fire. The bowl to the left of the photo is what you put the fresh, liquid rubber in to dip your mould.

And I really did have to leave today. It was a fabulous four days but this rash on my back was getting worse and I needed to do something about it. Something sensible I mean, like get it looked at instead of pretending its not there. After rice, beans and over-salted meat we were taken back to Manaus the way we came. Awesome trip, I totally recommend Iguana Turismo, Alan knows his shit and is a brilliant guide. The eager to please owner, Gerry, is on hand to get you anything you need and is geared up for any situation. Bad back? Have a hot compress. Unidentified blistery rash? I’m sure I have a cream for that. Brazil nut allergy you were unaware of until you just ate that Brazil nut? I’m sure I have a hastily washed fuel pipe around here somewhere I can jam down your throat… That’s an actual story too, poor bastard. What a way to find out you have an allergy, middle of nowhere, 2 hours from the nearest town. My last Brazilian adventure was a good one. Next stop, Venezuela.

He put a drum with a hole in it over the fire because all he wants is the smoke. He dipped the mould then held it over the heat and the smoke until it solidified.

It’s with a heavy heart I finally leave Brazil. It was meant to be a whistle-stop tour to visit mates and check out a few key points before I had to start hocking organs on the black market to fund the tour through the most expensive country on the continent and its ended up sucking over 7 weeks of my life and a large portion of my bank account. Brazil didn’t just break the bank; It jumped it in a dark alley, stamped on it’s head and nicked it’s wallet. The bank is currently in intensive care in critical condition.

Here are some rubber wallets he made earlier. He lets them dry properly on the mould.

But shit, it’s been worth it. I don’t regret a single minute and every centavos has been well spent right from gaping in awe at Cataratas Do Iguaçu to swatting at thousands of mosquitoes as I glided up the Rio Amazonas. The next bus I get on will take me all the way through to Venezuela with its military checkpoints and corrupt officials. I’ll miss the chilled out, laid back, friendly Brazilians. I’ll miss the diet of over-sweetened coffee and deep fried food. I have to admit, if I see another plate of rice and beans I’ll throw it at someone but I’m not sure how I’ll cope without coxinhas and caipirinhas (yes liver, it’s safe to come out now) and my shiny new obsession, açai ice-cream.

Alan, our guide, showing us how you cut a rubber wallet off the mould.

I’ll have to remember to say gracias instead of obrigada whilst grovelling to officials at border control with my biggest smile fixed across my face and keep an eye on military police trying to take my money or medication or plant stuff on me in order to get a bribe out of me (yeah, actual stories from other travellers coming from Venezuela). But yeah, Brazil is an awesome country and I’ve barely scratched the surface, it’s so huge. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Abso-fucking-lutely!

He let us all have a go at the toasting part.

Aaaand about this rash. It started off about the size of an NZ Pokie Token ($2 coin for those amongst us with less vices) and I didn’t think much of it. I just put some cream I had on it that’s usually pretty good at shifting rashes and went off on this jungle tour. Then it started spreading and getting worse and is now spread across my back. It’s a weird one, it doesn’t itch, thank the deities, but it hurts. It feels like a bruise to touch and every now and then it’ll have this stabbing pain and it feels like my muscle aches where it is. It’s red but made up of these tiny blisters which would usually give me so much pleasure to burst (Mmmm. Bubble wrap) but even if I wanted to hack the shit out it I couldn’t because it hurts too bloody much. Stupid rash. Anyway, ignoring it didn’t seem to be working but fortunately everyone’s a doctor.

Now I’m no expert in these matters, but wouldn’t this be a bit… well… disappointing?

One of the guides at the lodge on the tour looked at it and said it was something, some Amazonian thing and the best thing for it was a natural remedy called coipaiba. They didn’t have any but he told me where to get it in Manaus. He said it was caused by a leaf or a lizard?!? I dunno, I couldn’t really work it out but a lizard? Really? I hadn’t mauled any lizards recently and I hadn’t been attacked by one. Unless a magic one looked at me funny or something. Maybe I got evil eye cursed by Gypsy Lizard. Another couple said it was El Fuego De San Antonio, the Fire Of Saint Antonio and I would need to see a witch doctor about it. Yeah, very dramatic but not overly helpful and anyway, I’m a big fan of chemicals. Natural remedies are great for some people but those people have patience and probably drink herbal tea and their house smells of incense and they’ve put their cat on a vegetarian diet and can you not hang the hand knitted woollen jumper from Oxfam on the clothes line after washing it in 40 degrees please? It’ll stretch. I preferred to smear my ailment in prescription strength hydrocortisone, swallow doxycycline tablets thus making me more sensitive to sunlight forcing me to cover myself in high factor sunscreen full of stuff I can’t pronounce or spell containing letters such as X and Z.

Name that scabby mound of flesh rot! Spoiler alert: it’s shingles. I have fucking shingles.

Then there was an Israeli couple. The lass looked at it and said it was identical to something she had on her face once but you can get it anywhere along the nervous system. She described how it felt and it was spot on. Herpes Zoster, she said it was called so once I was back in civilisation I Wiki’d it. Shingles. I have fucking shingles, a form of herpes. Damn I’m sexy. But yeah, just from reading Wiki I’m 99% sure of it so off I trotted to the pharmacy where they took one look at it and handed me anti-viral cream and tablets. Fabulous. At the end of the day I don’t care what it is or how it got there. I just need to know how to make it go away.

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Jungle near Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
Stayed at: Iguana Turismo’s lodge in the jungle.

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