Thursday, 2 September 2010

Trip Down the Amazon: Manaus to Santarem

Once we got to the heart of the Amazon rainforest and discovered that it was one big duty free shop devoid of mosquitoes and rain we had to tackle the next problem. And that was getting out of the city that was surrounded by thousands of miles of jungle.

Manaus is in my top five strangest places I've visited. It promises so much and delivers so little. I wonder if Timbuktu is the same. Romance and reality like an unwanted pregnancy collide. I thought I was going to get a settlement on the muddy banks of the world’s most vital river with dignified shacks heroically wrestling to keep the forest at bay. A town with monkeys and parakeets festooning roof tops, with the constant patter of rain. And with the charm of indigenous people trotting past covering up their nakedness with a stick skewered through their penis. Instead we got crumbling colonial facades, miles of street stalls selling trainers and electrical equipment. We got a big port where people sat all day drinking cold draft beer. We got a small zoo with one manatee and one monkey. And we got a rash of rich Japanese tourists and over-priced tour companies flirting with each other. The best thing that happened to us in Manaus was meeting a middle aged professor with a smooth bald head and dandy moustache who made the worst joints I’ve ever tried to suck on and who spoke at length about one, global warming being a fiction; two, indigenous people being immune to money and the work ethic; and three, how nature's resources were not there to be exploited by this generation but to be preserved for future generations. Once his first joint fell apart and I could repackage it into one of my trademark rolls his tales fascinated my wife and I. We both sensed something contradictory in what he said and something manic about the little bloke with a fine moustache but sitting on the roof looking out over the city it all made for the perfection of the moment.

I was a little disturbed, however, when in the men's dorm that night he approached me in the grey darkness in his underpants and knelt down beside my bunk and waited for me to open my eyes. What the? He wanted cigarettes. Always willing to oblige a smoker who had done me a good turn, I got up and gave him a couple of fags.

The next morning we packed to leave and before checking out the professor gave us his address and a small nugget of compressed weed.

We had carefully prepared for the journey down the river from Manaus to Santarem. The book said it should take between 30 and 36 hours to do the journey. Other travellers explained that you strung up a hammock on the deck so you needed to get there early to get a hammock spot.

For months I knew this was coming. I had imagined it would be like some floating refugee camp and that we would be squeezed into some filthy corner next to a family of twenty, doggedly guarding our bags and praying for disembarkation.

We had bought our tickets the day before despite people telling us that we should rock up at the last moment and negotiate with the captain to get discounted tickets. We opted to ignore this advice because we wanted to get a good spot and when we went down to the port the previous day we saw a ticket barrier stopping people entering the loading areas, and what is more, we couldn't find any gathering of wily captains sipping cognac and wearing misshaped naval caps.

Early on the day of departure, we walked with a massive burden of packs, hammocks, food and water to the port, squeezing past school kids and street hawkers and finally found our boat. It wasn't as massive as I imagined and it wasn't a floating oil stained barge. It had a bottom loading area, a middle area for hammocks and a top deck with a bar. The hammock area was filling up but there was still plenty of space. There were three metal poles running down the length of the boat from which people slung their hammocks. We padlocked our bags to a nearby post and put up our hammocks. My wife did the classic slapstick. She got in her hammock and the knot slipped and she sunk to the ground with a bang. She retied and plopped back on the hammock and the rope unraveled again. A couple of our fellow passengers were smiling with mirth. A man in bright beach shorts and an impressive belly peeking out from a stretched T-shirt took the rope from my wife and tied a firm knot in 10 seconds. 

All settled in with book, fags, water and baggage secure we watched as more and more people squeezed their hammocks on the middle deck.

We left 30 minutes late and went down the river for only 10 minutes before a police boat pulled up next to our boat. I had the professor's weed on me. I popped it in my mouth and waited. The boat was loaded with bananas, duty free plunder and swinging people. To go through everything would take a week. It took an hour and a half. The police never came up to the middle deck. They must have dallied to tut over the bananas and drive up their bribe. Whatever the reason, when we started again I was glad to be finally on the mighty Amazon chugging low in the water, heading for the Atlantic coast. Being in a hammock, drifting down the river with nothing to do but relax and occasionally stare at the dark brown river was not half as bad as I thought it was going to be. Something about being hidden away in the folds of a hammock with dozens around you gives you a certain type of anonymity. The bloke next door fondly took out the power drill he had bought in Manaus, the mother on the other side of me studied a Christian pamphlet and two blokes just a few meters away shouted and sloshed back and forth a bottle of cane spirits. Normally such happy drunken morons would find me out as surely as a smoker would find that last fag in the packet. But no, ensconced in tough woven material I was somehow beyond their ken. 

The river was as wide as several football pitches and mostly just impenetrable jungle on both banks interrupted every hour or so by a few rickety wooden piers and shacks leaning over the muddy bank. And of course a few makeshift football pitches. We saw nothing but the odd bird and butterfly. Not even a mosquito made it out to the center of the oceanic river. Where were the anacondas so big they could swallow Jennifer Lopez's arse in one half-bite? Where were the pink dolphins sporting in nature's greatest reserve? Where were the pigmy rainforest people in their dugout canoes? Where were the other passenger boats? In fact where was anything?

As night approached we got bored of nibbling on biscuits and sipping warm water and decided to investigate the dining options. It turned out that a woman had a small kitchen by the toilets and you could buy tokens from her for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We spent seven Reals each for a plate piled with the standard delicious Brazilian carb fest of rice and beans and chicken with manioc powder and two strands of lettuce. We ate at a collapsible table two meters from out hammocks. It folded up from the side railings. So we gazed at the blackness. The families around us were busy concluding their showers, changing into sleeping clothes, brushing their teeth and just generally being very at home. By eight-ish as we squeezed the last plastic spoonful of rice and beans into our mouths it was already lights out. Young and old in a suspended squash swung gently and dozed.

The two men nearby who were boozing out of a bottle had been politely shooed away.

I pulled out the mad professor's gear and made a two skin number hidden in the depths of my hammock. Once done Mrs. and I went onto the top deck.

There was a roof which stretched over the bar and a small seating area. The top deck was about 10 or 15 meters across and about 30 meters long. At the back near the cabins (for the rich folk) and the stairs was a little bar selling cold beer and sodas with a TV on the bar. The TV was hooked up to a crackling speaker and blared out Brazilian pop. Sure enough the drunken brothers had passed the test of the bottle and now were pushing and pishing on with the canned brews. I grabbed 2 drinks and got change in the form of tokens (that anything-above-$5-is-impossible-to-give-change thing). We gave the Marx brothers a wide berth and found a windy spot at the front of the boat. We sparked the spliff and watched the moon over the jungle.

Seconds later I was in love with the Amazon, Brazil and possibly the world.

Nobody bothered us.

Everything and nothing trickled across my mental radar.

We enjoyed the cool breeze

Stoned on a boat going down the Amazon.

After a couple of joints and a couple more beers we decided to move to the tables at the bar. And sure enough Abbot and Costello were keen to communicate. They offered us drinks (which we refused) and asked us a barrage of questions in Portuguese. A gawky 12 year old stood by the table in the half shadow and silently watched the meeting of cultures. I tried my best to guess their meaning and reply with a few keywords in Spanish. Just the smallest success at communication is fatal when dealing with happy drunkards. Like a bull forever lunging at the elusive red sheet they stumbled over the same shared words and never really got across the point which was inflaming their enthusiasm. They could have been trying to tell me the location of the lost treasure of the Inca Kings. Or perhaps not. We made our apologies and escaped after one drink.

Early next morning we woke up dehydrated. I had a piss and some water and went back to sleep. I vaguely noticed everyone get up, have a shower, put on fresh shorts and T-shirt and tuck into bread and fruit as I drifted in and out of sleep.

After pleasantly dozing for a couple of hours we got up and performed minimal ablutions. I washed my face and arm pits in the sink by the toilets and changed my T-shirt. Breakfast was fruit, biscuits and water. Mrs. TT had somehow befriended a shy teenage girl and was being introduced to her baby sister and chubby mum. I read my book.

The day passed like the previous day: staring at the river, stopping at the occasional small town on the way and eating unfeasibly stodgy and good food. The only difference about this day was that my astute traveller's brain was telling me that 30 hours meant only one night and not two. Surely it was a late landing at Santarem? Maybe they had conscientiously managed to make up time via nautical mastery and full throttle.

The half a dozen neighbours I had, told me that Santarem was tomorrow and not to worry. Since there were no attendants in nappy little skirt suits and dinky little caps to confer with, no handsome crew to be spotted in uniform at the bar, it was to my neighbours and the woman in the kitchen next to the toilets that I turned to for informaciĆ³n. Tomorrow it was with a blitheness that was breezy and Brazilian. Not to worry; we still had a couple of mad professors left of green and I still had some tokens in my pocket from last night which were fully exchangeable for cold canned beer.

Late afternoon we got up on deck for the sunset. Moments like this it should be gobsmacking. It was a dull blur. The mist and humidity generally did a good job of spoiling the sunset. It momentarily cleared and the black river sparkled. Then it went dark.

The next morning I woke up and poked my head over the hammock. Shit we've stopped and lots of hammocks are missing. We hurriedly packed up our stuff. Everyone else just unhurriedly carried on sleeping or packing up. It was 6am.

At 6.30am we were standing outside the port. I knew it wasn't the centre. I was vaguely convinced after studying the LP that we could walk to a bus stop to get us to the beach, Alter do Chao. We seemed to be the only foreigners on the boat and now we were the only people attempting to walk somewhere. The streets were empty except for the odd jogger and homeless dude. Worse was the fact that the streets stretched on and on in the 100% humidity. My wife was beginning to hate me.

After forty minutes lugging our packs we got to a small fishing port just up or down the river (I wasn’t sure) and I got out a pen and paper to get really serious with the communication attempt. Dripping sweat, I smoked a fag as I crossed a road to a kiosk made of weathered wood. The chubby kiosk lady was nice as pie and seemed to get my gist about the bus to Alter do Chao. She consulted with her only costumer and they agreed I should take the road behind the kiosk heading up a hill away from the water. It made sense to me. We started up the road and didn’t spot a bus stop but did spot an open supermarket. Toilet, food, ciggies, cold drink: all essentials for the demands of the moment and good for the morale.

Refreshed and newly enlightened from a taxi driver's directions we set off further up the hill. The ailing wife spotted a fellow that looked Japanese and asked him something out of the phrase book we had been given in Bolivia that she hoped was Portuguese. He was pointing back down the hill. No, no, no. I took the leader's prerogative of ignoring this information and heading into a shop on the corner at the brow of the hill. It took the till bloke 5 minutes to check out 3 items and sort the change out. He then gave me his attention. He pointed to the road that crossed the road we were just on. He seemed certain. My wife wasn't; the face was creeping on. I boldly rallied the troops and we set off on a new course. Sure enough we got to a bus stop. It was an underwhelming experience since there was no timetable or fellow-in-waiting to confirm that this was the bus stop we needed. At least we had come to shade and a stop.

Twenty minutes later a newish bus bounced over the potholes and stopped for us. It was the bus to Alter do Chao. Result. Of course we struggled to get through the turnstile with our packs. But it was only 2.3 real each. That’s less than a dollar. To my mind that made it all worthwhile.
And when later that day when we came out of our little Posada in Alter do Chao and strolled down to the river and paid 3 real for a boat to ferry us across to an idyllic sand bank 30 meters away it seemed even more worthwhile.

The small island or sand bank had a beach on both sides and a line of restaurants. It was Sunday so everyone was out, enjoying the sun. We looked for a quiet spot and soon ran into a group of artisanas or hippies. They spoke a bit of English and got us stoned.

The usual edge of paranoia crept into the proceedings when I had to pay the money up front for some cousin to go off and score. They seemed cool and 50 Reals was not too painful an amount to lose.

As we waited I went for a swim in the warm river water. On the town side the bottom was muddy and unpleasant. On the other side of the sand bank it looked like an ocean, the river disappeared into the horizon with no evidence of a distant bank. The river bottom was also sandier.

All was well with the world. The gear came. I walked 500 meters up the beach with the young cousin who looked somehow like he had a job. When the beach was empty he handed over a brick of sticky weed. We made a couple of joints and walked back.


We hung with our new found friends, most of whom lived on the beach, for another hour or so and then made our excuses and left.

Back in the air-con room, with fridge, shower/toilet and view of badly made wall we recalled with a laugh that just a few hours ago we were losing heart under the Amazonian sun.
After a long stoned sleep we got up and splurged on a fish dinner in a restaurant on the main plaza. Now we were best of friends again and in mutual agreement that this beach was‘something special’. A term we reserved for only a handful of the many beaches we had visited over the years.

I loaded up with cane spirits and guarano pop at the small shop on the other side of the plaza and we went back to our room.

The beach, the hot weather, the luxury room and non-luxury view and the happiness of getting a new brick of weed made it one of the best days of the trip.

This was more like the heart of the Amazon.

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