Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Amazon

Early next morning we moved out to the direction of the port. Not the container port, which was surrounded by a three meter wire fence (with electric wire to boot), the entrance guarded by grim men in uniform, but to the ¨public¨ port. The piers stretched out for some 10 kilometers along the shoreline, and there was plenty of boats moored up. Some were unloading lumber, some were loading rice and beer to take upstream, but most of them were not going anywhere anytime soon. We asked a few captains of the typical three deck passenger/cargo vessels like this one where they were heading, but the furthest port of call was Macapa, 100 kms away, and in the wrong direction. After going up and down the port for half a day, amidst slums, open-ditch sewages and never-ending piers, we came up to Porto Marcus Pinto. ¨Santarem¨, a beten-up three deck diesel boat was due to depart today, and the last of the cargo was being loaded into the vessel. Most of the passengers were already on board, having hung their hammocks in the best spots. They were idly waiting, observing the labourers work. The cargo deck was being filled with bags of onions and crates of tomatoes. We found the captain and inquired about the price of passage up to Manaus. ¨180!¨ was his firm word, but after some pleading, going away and coming back game, it was lowered to 150 ($75), and to that we agreed. We were actually quite happy with the arrangement, having by that time abandoned the hope of hitching out of Belem.
So we went back to the hostel, got our bags, bought some snacks for the 5 day ¨cruise¨ and came onboard.
When we showed up, the official passenger-holding capacity of the ship must have been trippled. Hammocks and travel bags took up most of the space on passenger deck and there was no space left to even sit down, let alone hang a hammock. Children were running underfoot and it was a difficult task to move along the passages: one had to step over, crowl under and generally avoid collision with the human bodies crammed into their hammocks all over. When we were leaving the hostel, the reception girl presented us with a hammock that one of the travellers left behind, so we were proud owners of a good, brand-new hammock, but without a place to hang it.
In despair, we went to the least crowded area of the ship - the cargo deck. We sat down on the hold hatch and watched the men load up the last of tomatoes. The crates were piled up to the ceiling on three sides of the hatch, and the forth side was a passage along the board. A crew member came up to us and said: ¨it is prohibited to sit where you are sitting. Go to the passenger deck.¨
¨Show us where we can go there and we will!¨ we answered.
He said nothing more and went away.
We looked around. The hatch was pretty big, and there were metal pipes running along the ceiling that we could possibly attach our hammock to... 10 minutes later we have occupied what proved to be the best spot on the whole ship (except for the air-conditionned cabins, of course). We had a cabin with a view. There were no neighbours, only green tomatoes peeped out from their card-board homes all around. True, we were a little close to the engine room, and on some nights it got pretty hot, but overall we were happy. Compare yourself:
As we were settling in for the night, we spotted a bag of pasta packages in the garbage bin next to us! What the hell? Somebody threw out 5 kilos of pasta? We promptly dumpster-dived the treasure and hid it in our bags. Half an hour later a crew member came by. He looked into the garbage bin, turned over some trash in there, obviously looking for something. Not having found what he was looking for, he went away and returned with a flashlight. He made a careful search of the area, even lifting up some tomatoes to see if the big bag of pasta accidentaly got buried in there. When we asked him if he was looking for something, he grumpily said he wasn´t. For the rest of the trip we saw him now and then sadly looking in the garbage bin, perhaps hoping that the pasta would somehow reappear. We nicknamed him ¨Matros Lapshov¨ to avoid pronouncing such words as ¨macaroni¨, ¨pasta¨ and ¨spaghetti¨ all words understood in Brazil. We guessed that he stole the bag from an even biger bag of pasta when it was loaded on the ship. He then stashed his booty the garbage bin, hoping to retrieve it under the cover of darkness. We beat him to it, and were not at all sorry. As most of the other tourists onboard, we thought that at least some of the meals would be included in the price of the passage. We were wrong. A sad looking plate of rice, beans and some meat varied in price between 6 and 10 reais ($3-5), depending on your skin colour and appearance. The whiter you are - the more expensive it is!
The pasta, therefore, was our main dish for the next 5 days, along with 2 kilos of peanuts and a kilo of raisins. Towards the end of the trip the tomatoes began to get red around us and we snacked on them now and again.
The first day of the route passed through the narrow channels of the amazonian delta. We often got close to the banks and the wall of greenery was sliding along us. We could imagine pumas, capibaras and anacondas looking at us from the cover of the forest. We saw no animals, but we saw lots of people. There were a lot of shacks built at the swampy shores of the river. The construction was dubious and the huts lacked window panes, but almost every one was equipped with a satellite dish, pointing straight up in the sky.As our ship would appear around the bend, people who lived in those huts would jump in their canoes and paddle out to the center. They would wait for the ship to get close and then the children in the canoes would start waving their hands up and down. The passengers onboard would get very excited and throw plastic bags full of stuff to the canoes. The local would then pick up the bags and paddle back home. The woman who stood near us watching the ¨donation¨ explained to us that these people were very poor and lacked essential things. People who could afford it donated what they needed most: clothes. It may be true, but many bags contained things other than clothes. We noticed potato chips bag showing through the plastic in one of the bags that floated on the water. What surprised us was that the locals never said ¨thank you¨ or some how acknowledged the gifts. They picked up the floating bags with the same face expressions as if they were pulling out a fish net.
The second day we got out into the main channel and the banks diminished to a thin line of green on the horizon. The captain steered the boat along one shore or the other to avoid the strong current in the middle, and he would switch sides often. When we passed a small village, a motorboat or two would catch up to us, tie up alongside and sell cheese, banana chips, salted shrimps and frozen fruit juice.
The third, fourth and fifth day of the cruise were hard to tell apart. We slept in the hammock, coocked pasta and generally hanged out on ¨our¨ hatch. Some passengers would occasionally come down, look at our royal arrangemnts and without saying a word, go back to their hammock. We guess that they were envious of our spot, which only encouraged us to never leave it for the fear of loosing it to some industrious local family of seven.
We read books and played chess to pass the time. The game aroused immense interest among the passengers. The men would gather in circle, observe us moving the pieces for some time and then ask if we were playing checkers. ¨No, it is chess¨ we would say. ¨Ahh, I only know to play checkers...¨ yet another man would say and walk off. We tried to teach some, but people lost interest about 5 minutes into explanation, asking if we knew how to play checkers instead.
An impressive sunset near Santarem
We arrived in Manaus on the sixth night, 3 in the morning. To our surprise, most of the passengers, rolled up their hammocks and walked off. We stayed onboard untill the morning to venture out into the port city.
No CS luck in Manaus either, so after a quick Internet session we headed for the take-off spot. In half an hour, already 4 cars have stopped for us, offering rides of 8 to 10 kilometers. We politely refused such offers, but were pleasantly surprised at the friendliness of the population. The fith car that stopped was driven by a math teacher. He gave us a 100 km ride to Presidente Figuereiro, talking all the way. He told us about the cruel history of the road we were travelling.
In the 70s, the last military dictator of Brazil (Figueredo) decided to build a road from Manaus to Boa Vista. The task was difficult because of the terrain to be traversed and also because of the hostile indigenous peoples to be encountered on the way. The Waimiri-Atroari people fought against the road builders, protecting their area. The army was called in to make the construction progress. The natives were mowed down with machine-gun fire, dynamited and blown up with grenades. The indians fought back with poisoned arrows. We were to pass throught the 200 kms of Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Reserve further up the road. The traffic is only allowed during day time, and stopping is expressly prohibited within the reserve.
We bid farewell to the talkative fellow at the turn off to his town and walked a little ways up the road. We came up to a tiny truck stop and seeked shelter for the night in an empty trailer. When we first asked the driver if we could camp in his trailer he totally did not understand what it is that we want, but after some 5 minutes of careful explanation in Portuñol, he got the idea and warmed up to us. We spent the night peacefully, enjoying sound sleep on the cool metal of the trailer floor.
In the morning, an early breakfast of bread, cheese and water, and we are back on the road. A quick succesion of three short rides placed us at the last settlement before the reserve. There, we cooked in the hot sun for sometime before the air brakes hissed behind us and we jumped into a truck carrying jet-fuel up to the airport in Boa Vista. Joao-Carlos was a sublime truck driver. He was talkative, inteligent and generally an interesting person, an uncommon collection of traits of Brazilian truck drivers. In the first five minutes of the conversation he said: ¨Once I saw a program on National Gegraphic about a French guy hitch-hiking around Brazil. I thought, wow, what a cool story, I would like to meet such a fellow, and then I see you two on the side of the road, so I stopped...¨ Joao-Carlos was interested in many things: he was intrigued by the mistery of the Incas and was planning a trip to Cusco; he collected wild orchids, for which purpose he bought some hectares of virgin forest in the Amazon; he painted with oil ¨to relax from the road¨, in his own words. Because he was transporting dangerous cargo, his speed was limited to 78km/h, and 60 on wet surface. He could not drive in the dark and was also obliged to stop frequently to rest (1:15 for lunch, for example). We did not object to such a relaxed schedule, still having our sleepless 16 hour ride fresh in the memory.
Joao-Carlos took it as his mission to show us the lands we were passing through. He would tell us local legends about pink dolphins and panthers; pirranhas that are only dangerous if you have an open wound on your body; dangerous fish cantiroo that lives in the local waters: if a swimmer urinates in the water, the tiny fish smells out the urine and quickly goes up the uretra. Once inside, it opens up its spiky fins and can only be extracted surgically. He told us about the giant anacondas (sukuri) that swallow up men and cows in one piece and pointed out tuyouyou birds, sort of like giant heron with a head of a pelican. Once we saw a herd of capibaras chilling in a roadside pool. Joao-Carlos screeched to a halt and backed up for 200 m so we could take a photo of them. He said:¨ whenever there are capibaras, there are panthers around.¨Our driver also possesed a wealth of information about the flora of the jungle and he would point out some of the species on the side of the road and talk about it.
An important part of getting to know the lands you are passing through is the food, and Joao-Carlos stopped at all his favourite road side stands to treat us to fresh fruit juice, an especially tasty dish of fried fish, fresh fruit... and, of course, a few cans of beer after a long day.
We are in Boa Vista now, heading to Venezuela in a few hours.


  1. awesome fun stories as always!
    no wonder people got off the boat 3am - imagine spending 6 days in that cramped room! haha

  2. Wow, what awesome adventures! It sounds like you skipped the interior of the Amazon. What is your goal destination/route? Where are you all headed next? -Kristen

  3. Hesi: You are right, we haven't thought about that...
    Kristen: We did skip the interior. If you want to see what is left of the old-growth forest, pretty much your only option is to take a 3-day guided tour, at 70 dollars a head per day - not our kind of travelling. Another option is to personally meet somebody who lives in the jungle and invites you over:)
    Our destination is Montreal, but our route is unknown to us. North, that's all we can say:)

  4. Amigos.....; fico feliz em saber, que com tão pouco, pude ajuda-los em suas aventuras, e não foram poucas.....abraços

  5. He-hey, Joao Carlos! Lo siento, pero en Español... Eres un PRIMERO camionero para dejar un comment, mil gracias pro eso! Estamos re felises que leeste nuestra historia!!!