Well there aren’t many roads up in this part of the world are there which means your transport options are limited to air travel which is quick and only requires your first born as payment or, for miserly buggers like myself who prefer a bit of scenery with their relocation, boat. River travel is the coolest way to travel and the most hellish mode of transport I have ever experienced, both at the same time. I rocked up to the N/M Santerém in Belém three hours early on the advice of Gilda at Hotel Fortaleza and still the only place I could find to hang my hammock was next to the toilets. Ah well, at least I wouldn’t have far to stumble in the night if I got the shits.
The hammock deck is so overcrowded that by the time the boat left the dock a guy had hung his hammock just above mine to the right and a mother had hung her 5ish year old child’s just above mine to the left. You expect to get someones arse in your face as they wriggle around to get comfy in their redes on these trips and don’t be too mortified if your toe ends up in someone’s ear as you attempt to do the same. However it’s okay to glare at small children who repeatedly kick you in the ribs as they try and tie their toes to their hammock. Small children should be kept on the bottom deck with the cargo. In cages with big padlocks. It was going to be a cosy night and I hope to god that the kid had full control of its bladder.
In true Brazilian style the 1800hr ferry left closer to midnight, the rumour being because they intended to overload the boat and had to hide the excess cargo in the warehouse when the inspectors rocked up. I gotta admit, there was a lot of onions on that there boat. Somebody in Manaus must really like onions. The first day when you wake up in your hammock is brilliant. You’re sailing down the mighty Amazon. THE Amazon river, the river that you’ve only ever previously read about in books or seen on TV. The river is sometimes so narrow that you can feel hundreds of pairs of eyes watching you from both sides and sometimes so vast that you have to remind yourself that it’s a river and not the ocean and you’ll be able to keep the contents of your stomach where you left them.
Then someone pisses on your bonfire and tells you that actually this is the Rio Pará and you won’t be reaching the Rio Amazonas until that night. Pah. Day one consisted of drinking beer, eating food and meeting some of the people you’d be sharing your space with for the next 3 days. Most of them were Brazilian but there were a couple of Argentinian guys who were motorbiking all the way from Buenos Aires, through south and central America to the USA. Epic. Then there was a French guy who’s dream it had been since boyhood to spend time in the Amazon and finally, at the age of 61, he was single and “free like a bird” and was realising his lifelong ambitions thus proving you should never, ever let go of your dreams because one day, no matter how long it takes, you might just get there.
I spent most of my time with Fiona an Irish ex-pat living in Spain who was travelling with her Spanish housemate, Andreas. I could always rely on Fiona to join me for a beer for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. And everywhere in between. Oh what? It’s not like there’s anything else to do as you glide along the water watching the world go by, catching snapshots of the lives of the people who live by the river; kids climbing poles to jump off them into the water, fishermen, fisherwomen, fisherchildren. People waiting for the boat to cruise by then grabbing hold to board and sell people shrimps. By the end of the first day I wish I knew the Portuguese for “stop throwing your crap into the river unless you wanna follow it in!” but that’d have been futile anyway. Everyone did it. I watched one woman walk past two bins to throw a plastic plate into the river. Grr.
The second day is cool. You’re sailing down the Rio Amazonas for real this time, catching glimpses of dolphins here and there, glimpses so brief you sometimes wonder if you really saw it or is the heat making you crazy. The camera goes away for most of the day because there are only so many photos you can take of trees and water and trees reflected in the water. You have new friends to hang out with and you can always go back to your hammock later for a siesta because you didn’t get much sleep the previous night on account of the overcrowding.
Day two was overcast and cloudy following rain through the night but fuck, you need the rain to clear the humidity in the air, rain in the tropics can be a god send when you’re cooped up in a small place like this. It cleared up in the afternoon though and by nightfall the sky was clear and we found ourselves gazing at the most amazing blanket of stars and I swear I’ve never seen so many shooting stars in one night before. I will never, ever tire of the night sky when there’s no light pollution, it’s possibly the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see. Me and Fiona got drunk, chatted shit and watched the stars until it was time to drag myself to bed.
The third day. The third night in that fucking hammock with all those fucking people, still on some fucking river in the middle of fucking nowhere and why don’t they build some fucking roads or something?! Clearly sleep deprivation makes me narky. On account of the fact we left Belém late, we arrived in Santarém late which meant we got to watch Brazil get knocked out of the World Cup by Holland. The boat went into mourning, seriously, it was like a funeral home. Me, I just wanted to get off the boat and have a proper nights kip somewhere, a shower somewhere that didn’t smell like shit (and I mean actual shit) and food that wasn’t beans, rice and chicken. We crossed the meeting of the light brown Rio Amazonas and the darker Rio Tapajós, there’s a definite line because the two don’t mingle, something to do with different temperatures and densities. I just thought it was fabulous because it meant we were nearly in Santerém.
On account of the fact the boat journey from Belém to Manaus is about 5 days I figured I’d break the journey up about halfway in a place near Santerém called Alter Do Chão, famed for its river beaches. Yes, that’s right, a beach right by the river, ridiculously far inland in the Amazon. Just hand me the caipirinha and fan me with palm leaves, I think I may have found my new home. Andreas and Fiona were catching a taxi straight there from Santerém so I hopped in with them for a few days of simply not being on a boat. Andreas has a friend here who runs a pousada so we stayed there, right by the beach. Perfect location and cheap an’ all. And the beach is the most perfect beach right by Rio Tapajós with its white sand, the freshwater which is warm enough not to freak out your nerve endings but cool enough to refresh you when the humidity gets too much, the bar right there in the sand with some of its tables and chairs edging into the water.
I love it here, simple as that. It’s the kind of place where everything just slows down. Hippies with more dreddlocks than can be deemed sane in this heat hang out in the square trying to get you to buy their crafts, some of which are cool, most of which are just them friendship bracelet things you used to make at school. Mothers rock their kids to sleep on the beach in hammocks. Street dogs patrol the bar area befriending anyone with food and practicing their best Cute Look. You can rent a kayak and paddle until your shoulders rebel, wander through the tiny town or just chill out on the beach sipping whatever drink takes your fancy and eating frango or peixe (chicken or fish) because that’s all the food they serve and the fish freaks me out.
Now, I’m a carnivore. I like my dead stuff and I know that the substance I’m nomming on used to have a face and a heartbeat and this doesn’t bother me. I can even catch, kill, descale and gut a fish without a problem. But when I order fish in a restaurant or cafe, can you make it not look like a fish anymore please? I hate it when my food looks at me. All the fish I’ve eaten in Brazil is served with the damn head still on and all its fins and stuff and for some reason this disturbs me greatly, I’m paying for this shit, at least fillet it for me. And cut it into bite sized pieces. And feed it to me whilst I recline in a hammock. And could you pass the tartar sauce please? Cheers.
So I’m used to lizards running around the room. When you’re in northern Australia you always see little geckos hanging around the lights looking for mozzies or slightly bigger lizards scuttling across the floor as fast as they can, but I have never woken up to find a fuck off great big iguana looking at me before. I was sleeping off a caipirinha hangover (I have now officially renounced anything containing cachaça) when I woke up to a scuffling noise. Two kids had chased one of them into the hammock room where I was staying and the poor thing had taken refuge under the laundry basin and was flicking its tail at anyone who got too close. That’d be the hard way to learn an iguana’s defence mechanism then, I reckon them tails would hurt like a whip if they connected. After the kids left and I’d got my obligatory photos I left the room so it’d feel safe enough to leave and I’d feel safe enough to sleep that night without running the risk of ninja iguana trying to escape.
My time in Alter Do Chão was cut short by a couple of days when I found out on the Sunday that the cheapest boat left on a Monday. Ah the joys of travelling, you can’t make plans, you just have to have ideas which change when you get from place to place and discover the situation. The three of us headed to Santerém so I could catch it and after Andreas spoke with a guy on a motorbike for a few minutes in Portuguese I found myself on the back of aforementioned motorbike with all my gear being taken to the docks. And thank you to both Fiona and Andreas for their help and their company, I really enjoyed my time with them. But for anyone planning to do the epic boat trip up the Rio Amazonas from Belém to Manaus, if you have the time, I recommend you stop here to just chill out and abuse your liver until it threatens to leave you for a nun.
Boat number two was the N/M Ana Beatriz which had two hammock decks. The bottom one with the A/C was already packed so I headed upstairs where I managed to find a place away from the bogs. The boat was so fucking overcrowded, it was a nightmare. You had to queue for the toilets about 20 minutes before you decided you needed them and trying to get fed was like a war zone. But at least when I crawled into my hammock that night I didn’t have a view of the loos with the unique stench that only public toilets can achieve in my nostrils. I fell asleep with the that smell you get after heavy rain when it’s hot, and a view of lightning flashing in the distance.
So it turns out I was the only non-Brazilian on the boat. The others were lovely and did their best to communicate but I spent most of my time hanging over the edge just watching the water. I have this theory that if you hang over the edge of a boat and stare at the Amazon for long enough eventually you’ll see something cool. My other theory is that as soon as your back is turned, a team of dolphins will perform synchronised gymnastics to the music of a crocodile jazz band and you’ll return just in time to see a dorsal fin sink beneath the water’s surface. Not that I’m cynical or anything. Aaaaaanyways, this post as already reached epic proportions so insert more bollocks about more different coloured rivers meeting here and arrival in Manaus. It was certainly an experience I enjoyed for the most part and I’m so glad I did it but if you ever ask me to repeat it, I swear, I’ll hang you with your own guts.
In other news, my Spanish has come on leaps and bounds. Spending time with Fiona and Andreas helped a huge amount, as did the two Argentinians we met on the boat and Eduardo and Wally who I met in Belém. Everyone was really helpful and while I still hardly know anything I now feel like less of a numpty trying to speak it. My confidence has improved heaps which will hopefully (crosses fingers) mean that I’ll start learning more. Bring it, bitches! As soon as I get to Venezuela I ain’t just gonna break that language barrier, I’m gonna shatter it into a million tiny pieces. Then apologise and offer to pay for the damage because I’m painfully British.
Alter do Chão, Pará, Brazil
Stayed at: Pousada Por do Sol in Alter do Chão