Monday, 7 June 2010

The Journey to the Heart of the Amazon


For years I've been in love with atlases. I find it exciting to pour over the pages, my nose close to the book reading the names of remote and exotic locations. I try to memorize the beautiful names of far away spots – Raratonga, Timbuktu, Palau, Ulan Bator, Tashkent, Turfan, Srebrenica, Livingstone, Srinagar, Xanadu, Ushuaia. Just the euphony of the words transports me away to far flung beaches, deserts, frontier towns, isolated mountain communities, jungle settlements and islands far from anywhere. The words are pregnant with the possibility of adventure. The syllables contain the potential of journeys fraught with challenge. While killing time in class I sometimes look out the window at the distant mountains and I imagine riding a horse on the frozen plains of Patagonia, of taking a boat into the heart of Congo's darkness, of trekking in the mountains to get to a village without road access. As more and more of the world falls victim to the malignant virus of globalization I have a growing desire to breathe the rarefied air of climes uncontaminated with ‘backpacker hostels’, menus in English and tourist class buses. Booking ahead, travelling in comfort, having it all explained in a guide book, encountering English speakers, and worst of all finding Starbucks and McDonalds just convinces me that a world without petrol might not be a bad thing. Convenience and familiarity is the false coin by which the exotic is being debased. Travel is big business and big business is only bringing the world together in the sense that everyone now knows the value of a dollar and putting 10 bunk beds in a room and charging laptop carrying twats $20 dollars a night for shared accommodation.

Enough of the rant. This piece is about how I managed to get to one of those remote spots on the map that I had dreamed of. That place is Manaus in Brazil. If you look at the map you will see that it is slap bang in the middle of the Amazon Rain forest. Two obstinate syllables holding out against the unquantifiable might of the mightiest forest. A place surrounded by one of the last refuges from the twenty first century. The Amazon is about the continuity with a dying past and simultaneously about the future. Amongst the centurion trees new species of flora and fauna are being discovered all the time. Many believe that the remedy to every disease and every cancer is to be found in the biosphere of the forest. There are tribes with little or no contact with the outside world, tribes who have been spared the ‘word’, who have escaped the trivia of ‘career’, ‘cash’, ‘play station’ and mobile phones. People who are blessed with nothing but the need to hunt food, make music, procreate and dabble in the planet's biggest pharmaceutical treasure trove. No police, no politicians, no lawyers, no taxes, no plastic. No buy one get one free. Man remembering that he is an animal who has guile and language on his side; not man with his head up his arse carrying round trinkets like iphones and car keys incapable of action unmediated by technology. The Amazon is one of the last places where ‘fast food’ refers to a flighty creature not a carcinogenic burger or a tortured chicken product.


There is only one road into Manaus and that is from Venezuela. That was a fun journey. We travelled through the night from Ciudad Bolivar down to the border. At the empty bus station at Santa Elena de Uairen we grabbed a couple of empanadas and sodas and negotiated with a wizened old man who owned the only taxi in sight. He drove through rolling green pasture land to the border. We strolled up a hill in the blazing sun past a load of impounded cars (anyone caught trying to smuggle more than a tank load of Chavez's oil out of the newly dubbed Bolivar Republic of Venezuela forfeits their car) to a small road side booth where they made us fill out forms about avian flu. We showed them our immunization cards proving that we had had the tamiflu injection. The fat woman in charge was irritated with this breach of protocol. She just wanted us to fill in the questionnaire and be on our way. Then we walked over the road to immigration. There were no other people crossing the border. There were no police to be seen. It would have been an easy feat to enter Brazil illegally. In the immigration office two huge smiling black mamas looked at our passports. They wore African headscarves and jangling bracelets. We had gone to a lot of trouble getting yellow fever certificates because the Crowded Planet and the Brazilian government website bang on about the need for the document. The mamas deliberately ignored our yellow fever certificates. My wife, who is Japanese, had bought a visa in Lima, Peru for Brazil. She handed over her passport with it open at the page of the visa stamp. The mama who took the passport instantly turned the page to find an empty spot to stamp. It seemed the whole place was on some type of industrial action where they would not only work slowly but incompetently. We both got 60 days. My wife's visa wasn't stamped. We both could have been carrying bird flu, swine fever, yellow fever and foot and mouth over the border and nobody would have moved a muscle to stop us. The only thing of interest seemed to be Venezuela's nationalized oil.

The first Brazilian town was about one kilometer down the road. Like many border towns the main money spinner seemed to be selling ‘duty free’ this and that. I went into a shop and with my shambolic Spanish managed to change the last of our Bolivar Fuerte (strong Bolivars – that’s a laugh) into outrageously strong Reals. We were in need of a much bigger injection of local currency to take us down the solitary jungle road to the heart of the Amazon, to the remote city of Manaus. My wife queued at the only bank for 30 minutes only to be told that they didn’t deal in any form of foreign currency exchange. The delightful lack of facility didn't strike us as so quaint at the time. We had been travelling for over twelve hours and had eaten only empanadas and cake the entire time. Warm water and ciggies had been keeping us going.

When faced with an obstacle it is often the case that the only thing to do is to carry on regardless. So we asked where the ‘terminal’ was and headed out of the one horse town down a concrete road shimmering in the heat. The bus terminal was one small office, a bench and a restaurant. As is so often the case, a money changer appeared out of nowhere. He had one of those odd hairstyles where it is greased flat at an angle across the forehead, like a footballer. He was the stereotypical entrepreneur who had long ago sold his grandmother because the margin was juicy. I had a vague notion about how much my dollar should get. After the usual to and fro with the calculator I changed a $50 bill. His best rate still seemed bad to me. He vanished in a blink of an eye. 

We then approached the small bus company office and waited for the bloke to come back from lunch. When he did, we were struck by two things: firstly, how friendly he was and  secondly, how beyond our budget bus journeys were in Brazil. We only had enough to get us to Boa Vista, about a quarter of the way. He helpfully suggested I put it on my credit card. This was not a bad idea because I had got hold of my first ever credit card just months before just for such an eventuality. My pin number didn't work. Oh well. We bought tickets to Boa Vista anyway. Let the future take care of itself. We went next door to the restaurant and enjoyed our first proper meal since we left Angel Falls. Chavez's socialist utopia is so ridden with crime that nobody ventures out at night in Ciudad Bolivar and through some genius stroke of town planning the town has not one place to buy food, not one supermarket or vegetable market anywhere in the town centre; only shoe shops. The markets are on the outskirts of town, past muggers’ paradise. Mr. For-The-People Chavez has wisely given all the police guns and green uniforms and told them to prepare for the imminent invasion of America. So despite the cost we filled our bellies with our first plate of Brazilian food. And the good thing about Brazilian food is that it not only fills your belly, it stretches it to the limits of endurance – rice, beans, pork, manioc and the smallest amount of salad washed down with some mysterious fruit juice.

While sitting on the only bench another bus arrived and one of the passengers to get off was a Japanese 40 something wearing one of those fisherman's jackets with dozens of pockets and a big camera strapped around his neck. Like so many of his compatriots he was in an unfeasible hurry. In his case, the rush was to get to Venezuela and see the Angel Falls and then fly back to Japan before his boss noticed he was missing from his desk. He spoke neither English nor Portuguese. His Spanish was no better. He stopped for five minutes to chat with my wife and get his bearings before taking off down the road looking like a fisherman who had lost his river.

The bus was late in arriving. Nobody seemed surprised about that. When it did make an appearance it looked reassuringly better than a Bolivian conveyance. It had a huge green parrot logo emblazoned across its side. We got on with a couple of other people who were obviously only going a few clicks down the road. It mercifully had air-con.

The road was a bit bumpy but in amazingly good nick considering that it ploughed a lonely furrow through the mighty Amazon. We passed small towns carved out of the tree line and farms sucking the goodness from the soil. The bus driver stopped a couple of times at shacks by the side of the road to drink a leisurely soda. Here was a man with a healthy disregard for time.

In the late afternoon we made it to Boa Vista. It was a big open town with empty wide avenues and tropical trees festooning the roadside. I was vaguely considering staying the night and spending the following day looking for a cambio or bank interested in traveller's cheques. Mrs. Trippy Traveller wasn’t so keen to break the journey merely because of a lack of funds. I agreed that it didn’t make much sense so we did a check of the bus companies just to confirm that we didn’t have the cash to get to Manaus. We searched the high ceilinged terminal for a change place. Nothing. But we did find a small glass office with a sign promising “Tourist Information”. A brown man (everyone was some shade of African) in shorts was watching the TV; not exactly burdened with his duties. We entered his air-con office and he was most solicitous. He didn't know a word of English but he was quite prepared to be patient with my random keywords in Spanish. “Quiero cambio. Hablo dollars Americano. Donde esta banco?”

And then he did the last thing I would ever have expected. He looked in the newspaper for the official exchange rate. Until that point I had never seen anyone in South America pay any attention to what the official rate should be. They had always inflated the strength of the local currency like true patriots. Our nice Tourist Info man then made a couple of calls on his mobile phone. Perhaps he was checking with the central bank of Boa Vista to see if they had the funds to change $100. No, he was actually talking to a shop owner 10 meters away. I know this because he took us there. The shop sold sodas, sandwiches and dusty souvenirs. The chubby girl behind the counter opened the till and emptied it. The entire contents came to $100 exactly. We were very grateful to her and the tourist info bloke. All we could do was to keep on saying “obrigado”. We had only been a few hours in Brazil but I was already liking the place much better than paranoid Venezuela. Nobody was that interested in our presence in this bus terminal and they certainly weren't interested in trying to rip us off. Rather it felt like it was only good manners in Brazil to aid the occasional foreigner that strayed onto their radar.

As we waited for our night bus we spent a few valuable Reals on a strange sweet green soda made of guarana berries to stave off dehydration. We sat on hard benches and watched a young man with a tray of watches accost random Brazilians and persuade them that they needed a watch. Looking back on the experience I have to laugh since where ever we went in northern Brazil the time varied from clock to clock and watch to watch by as much as ten minutes, and nobody seemed to notice. Was this healthy disregard of exact time partly fostered by the man standing before me flogging dodgy no doubt made in China timepieces partly to blame? I kind of hope so.

The bus might have arrived late or it might have arrived on time. It depended on whose watch you consulted. Yet again a random Brazilian approached us as we milled around the bays where the buses parked and asked in broken English where we were going. The young man just wanted to make sure we got on our bus.

The bus was more crowded and slightly better than the last one we had boarded. It had free bottles of water on board which was a definite boon when travelling in the Amazon.

The bus made a stop an hour or so into the journey at a restaurant that reminded me of Thailand. The place was just a corrugated steel roof and concrete floor. No need for walls in the 100% humidity of the jungle. My wife and I studied the system. It seemed to be a buffet whereby you could fill a 12 inch place with a mountain of meat and carbs for a fixed price. We bought one plate and shared it. Other passengers were doing the same so we didn't feel bad about it. I didn't know it at the time but this was par for the course in Brazil. There is a huge disparity in the country between the price for things and what the average person can actually afford. For example, I'm sure the price of a bus ticket from Boa Vista to Manaus would represent nearly a month's wages for an average Brazilian. I guess like so many of the world's population not blessed with an American, European, Japanese or Australian passport they had learnt to survive on virtually zero money. What distinguishes the Brazilians is that they achieve this feat with a smile.

We got back on the bus and with our bellies full again we fell asleep on the dark bus slowly bumping its way through the jungle.

We arrived early the next morning. We had spent the last two nights on buses and felt the dirt and tiredness to our very bones. It is at such points that relationships become strained and the desire to just chuck money at the situation becomes tempting. Only we didn't have any money to get off so lightly.

Our packs were thrown on the concrete and a vulture taxi driver appeared out of nowhere. I tersely refused his offer and located our bags and dragged them off to the side. We had a fag and considered our next move. The CP mentioned that the terminal was miles from the centre. I had got the name of a hostel from a fellow traveller and had found it on a map. It was just a matter of doing the local transport to get there. With my fast wilting wife we hauled our packs onto our backs and headed for a bridge spanning the busy highway next to the bus stop. I was too tired to notice that I had made it to one of my dream destinations. It just felt like the outskirts to any big chaotic third world city.

We had no one to follow so I was thrown on my own resources. I got out my compass and considered which direction was mostly likely going towards the centre. I then checked at a gas station at a corner junction. The gas pump guy struggled to understand my latinate gibberish but eventually seemed to twig and pointed to a stop 50 metres down the busy road.

My wife was on the verge of hating me for subjecting her to this final round of endurance. We smoked and waited in silence. A bus pulled up after ten minutes. Getting on the bus was a challenge. Passengers entered from the back of the bus and had to go through a turnstile after paying the bus fare. Naturally our bulky packs wouldn't fit through the narrow turnstile. As the bus lurched around corners we passed the packs to each other over the metal railing while at the same time searching for change to give to the huge African ticket lady.

Another obstacle overcome. Plenty more on the way. My brain rose to the next challenge: where to get off? I studied the Lonely Planet map and the names of the streets whizzing past. Luckily, colonialism has made it easy to spot a centre. The grand buildings built by raping the land and exploiting African labour (the locals fucked off into the jungle rather than become the Portuguese lackeys) suddenly hit the cityscape. I judged we had arrived at a key bus stop and roused my half dead wife to action.

Luck was on our side. We were on the map and soon were dodging our way down the busy street to our intended hostel. Beat up cars filled the roads, vendors pedaled snack foods from small wooden booths; office workers, school kids, rich and poor packed the sidewalks. White, brown and black skins sweated in the heat. Suits, Bermuda shorts and football jerseys provided the colour to the city. It was a thriving city devoid of parrots, insects, birds of paradise, monkeys, indigenous people, exotic flowers and creeping vines. The only noises were from gas belching cars and buses and from the hubbub of the denizens. Not a trace of the Amazon forest was to be seen or heard.

As we negotiated the crowds through the heart of the city near the port we spotted a place that had a painted window announcing money changing services. Just when we weren't looking for what we were in desperate need of, we found it. How like life – contingency provides what determination failed to deliver.

As we approached Hostel Manaus the crowds thinned and we soon made it to a goal. Just one more hazard to negotiate. Did they have dorm beds for us? Yes, they did but we had to pay in advance. Typical - there but not there. So we waited in the lounge smelling of two days of sweat for nine o'clock when the change place would open. They wouldn't let us have a shower or eat breakfast or check our email. We just sat in a semi-delirious state smoking the last of a ciggies praying that the place around the corner would change traveller's cheques.

When nine-ish arrived we headed out again and found the place we had spotted earlier. They changed traveller's cheques at the official rate but charged a flat $5 fee per cheque. Fair enough. We changed one $500 cheque, found a supermarket nearby and bought water, fags and some food. And then like pilgrims on the last stage of the journey we found new strength to walk smartly back to the hostel and finally get a bed each.

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