Monday, April 9, 2012

The last leg of the Amazon

04/08/2012
Source: Jerusalem Post


When sailing downriver on the Amazon, the first place one encounters a buoy in the water is at the large port city of Manaus.

Upriver, the change in the level of the river is more acute as the channel is narrower, and bouys are therefore useless. By the time you reach Manaus, where the river is quite broad, there is an actual pier for ships to dock rather than simply a plank of wood cast between the boat and the muddy shoreline; there is a container port; there are oil tankers anchored offshore; there is a more established atmosphere altogether.

Boats sail from Manaus to Belem on Brazil’s Atlantic coast twice a week, and as with all boats along the Amazon, they carry both cargo and passengers.

But it is wise to book a ticket in advance. The operating agency through which I had booked my jungle tour told me I was lucky because on the date I was planning to depart, “the best boat that sails to Belem” is the one which will be sailing.

Another backpacker and I were both planning to do the trip, so together we went to purchase the tickets in advance. We learned of a loophole, so we decided to take advantage of it. Someone who books a cabin can also put up a hammock. So he gave me the money for the cost of his hammock ticket, and I reserved a cabin – partly paid for by his money. In exchange, he could store his valuables in the cabin and not worry about theft and he could use the fridge in the cabin, and I paid less for a cabin ticket.

The other backpacker is David Oliver, a 36-year-old African-American with dredlocks cascading down his back, and he is on a 14-month backpacking trip in South America. He works as a chef in one of the better casinos in Las Vegas, the city where he was born and raised. He also spent time on a submarine in the US Navy. During his time in Colombia, he volunteered for four months at an orphanage, teaching English and improving his Spanish.

The boat ticket clearly indicated embarkation no later than 10 a.m. on departure day, with actual departure set for noon. We were also told that we should come to the boat 24 hours prior to departure in order to choose our cabin in that “class” of ticket, which we did. We were alarmed, however, to see that the cabin they wanted to assign to us was without windows. We indicated that we had paid a lot of money (relatively) and should get a better cabin.

Unfortunately, neither of us speaks Portuguese and we had trouble explaining our preference to the woman taking us around. Finally, she put us into the hands of “Douglas.” It turns out Douglas is originally from Savannah, Georgia, but has lived in Brazil for nearly 30 years. He also happens to be the captain of the boat. CNN has done a story on him as well. Douglas got us the best cabin on board, and during the trip brought us up onto the bridge.

The cabin still lacked a few amenities, to be sure, but it was a far cry from the earlier ones we had been shown. What apparently made this boat “the best” for this route is that it is made of metal and not wood.

Departure day – we showed up around 9 a.m., stored our gear in the cabin and then set off to buy some supplies – oranges, bananas, crackers, bottled water, etc.

When we got back aboard, I decided I had to sleep. I had acquired a bad cold and had not slept well the night before. Dave went off to his hammock.

Precisely at noon, the boat began to move. I got out of bed and went on deck. Looking around, I didn’t immediately see Dave, but the boat is large so I thought nothing of it and went back to sleep. I awoke a few hours later and realized we weren’t moving. Going on deck, I discovered we were still in Manaus, but we had moved to another pier about 400 meters away from the first.

Dave, meanwhile, had met a local Brazilian. They had decided to go ashore and were told the boat would only be leaving at 4 p.m. However, when they returned to the pier, the boat was missing. No one had told them that it was being moved to another pier, and they were sure it had sailed. Only at the last minute did they discover the change and make it back aboard – just in time for departure.

This segment of the Amazon – the 1,600 k.m. from Manaus to Belem – is very different from the Amazon Basin. The river is much wider. The current is stronger.

The towns where we stop are more prosperous. There are actual wharves and piers. Yet the people on board are pure Brazilian – openly curious and friendly, not put off that you don’t speak Portuguese, helpful to tourists but also to each other, and people who like to party.

Every night on the upper deck, there’s music playing, a bit of drinking and dancing, and a lot of laughter – at least until the rain starts! Earlier in my trip, I had asked one of my jungle guides when he last saw a 24-hour period without any rain. The response was a simple “never.” It starts. It stops. People in the streets wander to a place where they can take shelter for a few minutes, and then they go on about their business. Outside of the cities, people just continue whatever it is they were doing. For without the rain, there is no Amazonian rainforest and no mighty Amazon River.

The last day, a newcomer on board, an American from Virginia who plays the fiddle, and a Uruguayan who plays a stringed instrument reminiscent of a small mandolin, gave us a concert which went on for hours.

It was sometimes Irish fiddle music and sometimes Peruvian or Uruguayan, but each learned quickly from the other and lent a particularly festive atmosphere to our travels.

This last day one also sees a huge increase in traffic on the river, with large barges filled with timber heading for the coast and others loaded with cars headed inland. Youngsters along the river paddle out to us in small canoes just to wave, and their parents come alongside selling fruit and occasionally ice cream.

As we approach Belem, the world changes. There are high-rise buildings. The air has a hint of salt due to the proximity to the ocean. There is a formality to the proceedings of disembarking – all very different from Iquitos, Peru, where I began my river journey. I have travelled some 3,000 k.m. along this waterway and revelled in every minute of it.

If you ever have a few weeks to spare and are in the mood for a bit of an adventure, sailing down the Amazon will give you an incredible cornucopia of experiences.

There are “hotel boats” which offer better amenities, but if you are prepared to rough it for a bit, go local and rub shoulders with the Peruvians, Colombians and Brazilians, and the occasional other tourist.

It will provide memories that last a lifetime and perhaps even make you some new friends.
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