On the Amazon

When you hear those words “the Amazon”, what do you envisage. For me, it’s impenetrable rainforest, exotic flora and fauna, logging companies and lost indian tribes. But most of all it’s that river. A river that’s so big that at times you can’t see from one side to the other. A river that contains so much fresh water that it penetrates the Atlantic ocean over 100km from its mouth.
Doing a trip on the Amazon was one of my big “must do’s” I’d planned for my trip to South America.
As I got closer to Belem, the vegetation became greener, thicker and even more tropical. This is the Amazon basin, an area which covers approximately a quarter of the South American continent. In Brazil, Belem is the capital of the Amazon, and in contrast to the rest of the north I’d passed through, was relatively prosperous and modern.
The Portugese used Belem as their staging point for the conquest of the Amazon and today its prosperity comes from the rubber trade. Once again many of the old colonial buildings still exsist from those days. But Belem is a city that is building upwards rather than outwards. It’s size and expansion is controlled by the river and the rainforest.
Down by the river a bustling port area exists. Like in many countries around the world, several of the old warehouses have been restored, and now cafes, resturants, bars and shops inhabit them. Further to the south is Ver-O-Peso, the market area. It’s here you come to pick up your hammock, clothing, pots and pans, mozzie nets, all for an insanely cheap price. At the food market you can get a huge plate of rice, beans and Amazonian fish, plus a cerveja for R$6, about $3usd. Each morning the fishing boats come in with the fresh catch.
The market has expanded into the narrow streets of the commercial area. An Amazonian nut vender cracks open nuts, the coconut milk seller machettes off the tops of coconuts in preparation for the next buyers. Pick yourself up some underwear, a TV arriel, fresh fruit and pirated dvds. Spiderman 3 and Pirates of the Carribean were out on the streets the day after they were released in the cinema!
The Pç do Republica is the main spuare, and a hype of activity. Men playing dominoes, young lovers getting aquainted, school kids hanging out. Today some elderly ladies were dressed in costumes dancing to some traditional music, and an environmental awareness campaign was being promoted. People of all ages bought pot plants and could be seen carrying them home.
But Belem has a darker side to it. You could be mugged anywhere in Brazil, but Belem is the first place where I met a couple of gringoes who were robbed. One held up in broad daylight with a knife. Lost everything except his passport. The other beaten up for a silver bracelet. It’s got a bad reputation. I consider myself lucky so far, but also being a smart traveler and never putting myself in that wrong place at the wrong time.
The rest of the port area is dedicated to the commercial shipping industry. Ships transporting containers, logs, trucks and vehicles, from up river, unload themselves here. It’s also home to the passenger ship terminal.
I bought a ticket for Belem to Manaus, a 5 to 6 day trip covering about 1500km. The ticket cost me R$160 and included 3 meals a day. It’s the cheapest travel in Brazil. All I had to do was buy a hammock and show up on time.
Although the ship didn’t leave till 6pm, you could board at 3pm. Turning up early proved to be a good idea. The competition for the best hammock places is feirce, and you’ve got to be pushy or the brazillians will just walk all over you.
There were a few other gringoes traveling and we managed to get a spot close together. At the beginning it looked promising that there wouldn’t be many passengers. By the time 6pm came around, hammocks were everywhere. You just had to laugh. The idea of personal space gets thrown overboard, and “packed in like a sardine can” takes on a whole new meaning! All the different colours of the hanging hammocks swaying in the breeze actually looks quite pretty.
We finally left port at 7pm, and began what would be a truely memorable adventure. I got aquainted with my new gringo friends, had a few beers and squeezed into bed around 10pm. It doesn’t take to long to get use to your “sardine” like situation. Any movement results in bumping arses, legs or shoulders with your nieghbour! But it’s all part of the experience.
Not a chance of sleeping in on this trip. If you’re not up by 6am, the crew wake you up and breakfast is served promptly. Just coffee, milk and bread rolls.
Who came to sleep anyway. Although we’d been going for 12 hours we were still about a day away from the main artery. The tributries of the Amazon river in themselves are a vast network of veins, weaving themselves amoung a series of densely rainforest covered islands.
The water colour is brown heavily laden with sediment. Broken away reeds and lillies float downstream. The waterways have become the highways. We pass huge barges carrying up to 60 semi trailers, logging boats, the gas man, short ride taxi boats, and other long distance passenger sgips. You’re never alone on the river.
Traveling upstream means the ship travels closer to the banks where the current isn’t as strong. This allows us to see the happenings of what’s on land. I am blown away by the peoples tenacity to live in such a wet environment. I know they most likely don’t have much choice but they’ve adapted wonderfully.
They’re houses are built out the only resource there is, wood, up on stilts and “open planned” living so as to maximise what little natural air conditioning they get. Most homes have a peir leaving from their front door out into the river, where little wooden canoes are tied up. If there is a series of houses together, a wooden boardwalk will link them altogether, so as to keep their feet dry. A verandah is another common feature, and the occassional “water garage” if they’re lucky enough to own a motorized boat.
The people are awesome. At almost every home we pass someone is standing at the window or door to watch us pass. Soon as the kids hear the ship they race down the peir, jump in their canoes, and paddle for their lives towards us. At first I thought they were coming to beg for money or sell us something. Quite to the contrary, they came to play in the wake of the ship! Crashing their little canoes through and over the small waves, smiling and laughing at each other and us. Once the ship had passed by they just paddled back to their respective homes.
Some kids, looking to go upstream, hitched a ride by hooking their canoes up to the ship, tying them off and climbing a board.Others at sunset did the same but came aboard to sell Amazonian fruits.
The people on board our ship are terrific as well, trying to chat to us, sharing food, kids intrigued by us and playing games. The ship is littered with babies and children. Considering the lack of space, things to do and length of time a trip like this takes, the kids have been remarkably well behaved. Babies sleep in hammocks with their parents, a mum is breast feeding every time I turn around, and nappies are as common as Havaianas. Western parents would be worried about comfort, safety, and driven insane because their kid couldn’t watch the Wiggles!
Cleanliness would also play a big factor. Although the ships cleanliness has gradually declined, the people themselves have an obsession with hygene. They shower at least once a day, some up to 4 times! They’re constantly washing their hands, and brush their teeth after each meal. Me, I’ve showered once in 5 days, but no soap, and worn the same clothes the whole trip!
It’s a pity their obsession with cleanliness stops with their bodies. The biggest disappointment of the trip has been watching the locals throw plastic cups, wrappers and bags into the river. Rubbish bins are out on the deck but it’s’ easier to toss it overboard than walk a few metres to a bin. It’s not just a Brazillian thing, I’ve watched this festering problem all throughout the developing and undeveloped world. It’s a mentality issue which will be difficult to alter.
At each port we stop at dozens of people are waiting. Some to greet friends or family, porters to unload and load cargo, venders climb aboard to sell anything from cheese to dolls houses. Funnily enough, though, most people at the port are there just to watch. As we pull away into the middle of the river, loud splashes can be heard at the back of the ship. Young stow aways have jumped off the ships roof. They turn and wave us goodbye, and head for shore.
At the halfway point of Santarem, a few more people squeeze into space that doesn’t exist.
Each lunch and dinner start at the same time, about 10,30am and 5pm, respectively. Us gringoes were pretty shocked at these timings at first, but by the 5th day our stomachs were well tuned in.
The meals are like a human experiement. How long can the human body sustain itself on the same food. Don’t get me wrong the food tastes good. But eating rice, spaghetti. beans and beef for each meal goes beyond monotony. But for Brazillians in the north this their typical diet. Luckily we brought some fruit and biskets to keep our taste buds from going on strike!
The forest. That inpenetrable rainforest. For great vast sects along the Amazons banks it is exactly this. I shake my head, looking for a way in. It doesn’t exist. I’ve seen several rainforests around the world but nothing compares to the wall of vegetation the Amazon makes. The walls stands untouched in most places, occassionally broken by a house or a town.
Will it last like this. Probably not. We pass barges carrying huge logs downstream. Each small village and large town has a timber mill, and processed wood waits to be sent off.
As the government cuts new highways through the Amazon, opening up the rainforest to logging companies, ranchers and the ever expanding population, I can’t help but feel what I’m seeing today, won’t be there for anothers eyes in 15 to 20 years.
The journey is nearly over now. Manaus is just a short distance away. The trip has lived up to expectations, it’s been an adventure, and truely memorable.

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