09 January 2012

BELEM TO MANAUS (5) (by boat)

28 December - Belem to Manaus - By boat

We loaded our bikes and headed to the port where we found a rather large boat waiting. I was somewhat nervous as I did not know how Amanda would do on the boat. She did however appear quite at ease on the larger boat, which felt more stable. We (like rich people) booked a cabin instead of a hammock, as Amanda claimed that she could not get in and out of a hammock, let alone sleep in one for five nights. I did not mind at all, as sleeping in a hammock sounds very romantic, but five nights may just be a bit too much.

We settled into our cabins and headed for the canteen, where we could sit and enjoy a beer. We watched our first sunset as we sailed away, leaving Belem in the distance. Ha ha! So much for a “cabin” - it was actually very noisy in the cabin, and far quieter out on the deck!

29 December

We woke to find ourselves in a narrow channel with thick and lush vegetation on both sides of the river. It was truly a jungle out there. Villagers rowed out to the boat en masse to catch whatever people threw overboard. Fellow passengers seemed to have brought large bags of clothing for this very purpose. Each item got tightly wrapped up in a plastic bag and then thrown overboard for the villagers to collect. I’m not entirely sure that I agree with the custom but who am I to judge?

We sailed very close to the side of the river all day long. Villagers continued to row out to the boat; some latched their canoes onto the boat, got on, sold their wares (mostly cooked shrimps) and then departed again. Just about everyone on the boat supported them and the shrimps were shared around all day long. At one stage the boat slowed down, a canoe latched on and offloaded a large amount of homemade juice onto the boat. The Brazilians are such an accommodating bunch.

It was not long before thick clouds gathered and soon it poured down, then, just as quickly, it stopped and the sun came out to give us a spectacular sunset over the Amazon jungle. At 20h00 our boat arrived at Gurupa, where more passengers were waiting to board. The quayside resembled the boarding of the Ark and we could not believe that, in the middle of the jungle, people could possibly have so much stuff.

It is quite impossible to capture the density of the forest and the vastness of the Amazon on camera. I tried, but to no avail; well done to those who have managed it! It is an incredible area, almost impossible to describe!

30 December

This day was slightly different as we left the narrow channels and headed out to the open waters. The riverbanks were still densely-wooded but from time to time they opened up onto flat grassy land. We stopped every now and then at small villages to offload goods, mostly rice and beans, for these small settlements. The quaysides were always a hive of activity - these drop-offs were most likely the highlight of the week. Vendors climbed onboard selling snacks and fruit, and just about everyone bought something and shared it around.

It’s a big watery world and (like in Borneo) kids seem to be able to row a boat before they can walk. On our boat, kids ran around and it appeared that everyone on the boat kept an eye on them. The people were extremely friendly, sharing whatever snacks they had; the boat was like a big family. The bar-fridge in our cabin was soon overflowing with juice, milk, water and whatever else people wanted us to keep cool for them. I was amazed to notice that not once did anyone throw anything overboard, but always carefully placed their rubbish in the bins provided. That evening, the sun set like thunder over the Amazon, birds flew home and people settled into their hammocks for the night.

The Amazon is a vast area, the numbers are quite mind-boggling. The river is huge and the forest thick and dense. Although small Caboclo (mixed indigenous and European) communities populate the riverbanks, there was no sign of the indigenous tribes.

31 December

We woke at 5h00 to find a big commotion on the boat; people were getting ready to disembark at Santarem. Our early rise also resulted in our first sighting of a sunrise over the Amazon. We pulled into the rather large town (for the Amazon) of Santarem and only left again at 12h00. We did not venture into town as Amanda, once again, did not feel well. Santarem is located at the confluence of the brown Amazon River and the dark Rio Tapajos. The most amazing thing is that the two rivers flow side by side without mixing.

The remainder of the day slipped away as we putt-putted up river past varying scenery. Sometimes flat grassy islands, sometimes thick jungle and sometimes small wooden houses would pop out of the forest, just to remind us that there are actually people living in this remote part of the world. The river is massive and hides its treasures well. One has to look closely and carefully to spot them.

Seeing that it was the last day of 2011, we had a few beers with friendly fellow passengers but retired before midnight. Just a few hours later, we woke again as our boat pulled into another little harbour to offload cargo. After all the excitement of anchoring and casting off again, it was back to bed again.

1 January 2012

The first day of 2012 dawned with thick, dark clouds in the distance. It was still pretty dark at 7h00 and I was unsure if it was due to the cloud cover or due to the fact that we had moved pretty far west. We did, however, find breakfast ready (5 Real each), consisting of fruit, coffee, juice, bread, ham and cheese – a typical Brazilian breakfast.

I felt a little disappointed, not because I hadn’t yet seen any spear-toting tribes or man-eating piranhas, but because I had failed to get any decent photos. They all came out a bit hazy or blurry. I tried almost everything, but to no avail, they stayed blurry and hazy. My second disappointment was our very expensive bottle of ‘champagne’ - specially bought to be drunk on New Year’s day, it turned out to be nothing more than a slightly fizzy apple-like juice!

The weather got more humid as we headed deeper into the Amazon. It was mostly overcast and windless as we sailed slowly and smoothly up river. Tiny birds settled on the railing of the deck without as much as a feather moving in the breeze.

I was looking forward to sunset as not once did the Amazon produce the same display. Every night it was completely different. This evening the sun did not set with a bang like the other evenings, but came with a very soft and subtle display of pinkish colours.

2 January

Again we woke to overcast conditions, and I went for breakfast which Amanda skipped, as she did not feel like (by this time) stale bread and soggy watermelon.

We had settled nicely in to the rhythm of doing nothing. Our days mostly consisted of eating, drinking, sleeping and sitting staring at the river and forest as we sailed past. Five days is a long time to do nothing and I, for one, was ready to get off that boat. We knew that this would be our final day but when exactly we would arrive in Manaus, no one could tell us. The staff’s best estimate was something like between 3pm and 7pm!

As we were getting closer to Manaus, more settlements started to appear along the river bank, making it a little more interesting.

And so came to an end our life on the Rondondin, and I had thought I would have had nothing to say other than that we were on a boat for five days! We arrived in Manaus around 5pm and in bucketing rain. We pushed our bikes along until we found a cheap hotel and settled in for the next few days, to get Amanda’s bike boxed and ready to fly home.

3 January - Manaus

During the night I became violently ill - no need to go into any details! The food available on the boats is notorious for giving you the runs, and I guess I tried my luck just one too many times. I managed to take a walk to the laundry to hand in our clothes (a risky business in my condition) and returned without any incident.

The world is obviously not as big a place as I thought! A certain Mr Markwood arrived at our hotel looking a bit worse for wear. Life without money is obviously not highly recommended.

4-8 January - Manaus

I felt slightly better in the morning and tried a bit of breakfast. Ernest had no problem with breakfast; he just about ate the entire spread they put out for the whole hotel!

Manaus is strange in the way that it is a big city in the middle of the jungle, and there was quite a bit to see.

I did not however expect to find an opera theatre in the middle of the jungle, but there it is! Manaus’ famous Teatro Amazonas: completed in 1896 and constructed by engineers from Lisbon, it symbolises the opulence of the rubber era. Constructed in the neoclassical style, most of the materials were imported from Europe i.e. Italian marble and glass, and Scottish cast iron. To top it all off, they rubberised the road outside to reduce the noise from late-arriving carriages!

At Manaus the black water of the Rio Negro and the white water of the Rio Solimoes meet but don’t mix and flow side by side for quite a few kilometres. The reason (from what I understand) is due to a difference in temperature, velocity and the fact that the Solimoes carries nearly eight times as much sediment, per litre, than the Negro.

5-8 January - Manaus

Amanda was also sick and the two of us hardly had the energy to do anything but sleep. I didn’t expect the stomach bug to last quite so long. In the meantime, Ernest raided Amanda’s bike of all working parts to fix his own ageing bike. He also boxed her bike for her, ready for her flight back to South Africa.

In the meantime, Amanda and I conjured up some energy to go to a nearby park, not that there was much to see, but it was a relaxing walk through the trees.

It was time to get ready to move on; my visa had expired on 6 January and it was still 1000 km to the border. I’ll just have to take my chances with the Brazilian authorities and hope they treat me kindly.

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