Arrived in Belem on Sunday to find the streets completely empty. They take the whole ´Rest on the seventh day´thing really seriously. Jean-Phillipe and Yoshi, a cool Japanese guy from our bus, made our way through the eerily quiet streets near the port until we found our hostel which was full of backpackers including 2 girls I´d met the week before in Jericoacoara. Everyone was talking about the same thing and asking the same question. When are you taking the boat to Manaus (or further on to Tabatinga). I´d been pretty nervous about the prospect of living for 5 days in dingy conditions with nothing to sleep on but a hammock but everyone was getting ready to do it so I started to gain confidence. The three of us made our way down to a part of the port, a few blocks away which has been renovated into a industrial style air-conditioned behemoth housing expensive restaurants, breweries and shops. It was pretty much the only place open besides the shopping mall so we stopped there to enjoy the view and try some specialties from the artisan brewery.
Gilda, who owns the hostel, took us all down to the boat at 7am the next day so that the eight or so backpackers taking the boat that night could hang their hammocks up in a good place. The boat looked pretty crappy but the boat that I was to take the next day was supposed to be much nicer and also much bigger costing only $5 more. I tried to be chipper for their sakes, they´d already committed and couldn´t back out. I spent the rest of the day walking around town and shopping, shopping, shopping. Belem looked very different on Monday with people bustling through the streets lined with stores selling beads, thread, zippers, lace, material and everything else one needs to make jewelery and clothes, you name it. The best was finding the stores lined with hundreds of bins of cheap designer type sunglasses. It was as if everything that anyone has ever attempted to sell me in the rest of Brazil was bought or made here. In the evening I met the guys back at the hostel so we could go and get some dinner. Just beside the newly renovated port buildings is a giant tented area covering over a hundred food stalls, the outside ones selling fruit juices and savory pastries and the inside ones selling fruits, veggies or full meals. We each had a smallish crab and then some really delicious fish at a nearby stall. It was so hard to choose.
Finally it was D-day. In the morning, Gilda took six of us by bus to our boat. It was much much nicer than the one the day before. I strung up my hammock that I´d purchased the day before and got in to get the feel of it. Not too shabby! Spent the day picking up supplies, water, apples and crackers and the like and just a trifle more shopping before catching a cab to the boat. Jean-Phillipe decide to fly to Manaus and catch a boat to Tabatinga from there instead of doing the whole grueling trip by boat so it was just Yoshi, myself, two Japanese and four Israelis. The first people I spied while climbing onto the boat are 2 older guys, uproariously drunk, with big Canadian flags on their bags. This could be a good trip! We all settled in and and it became dark quite quickly. There was a nice big open space near the back of the boat where we milled around and chatted for a few hours before turning in. So far so good.
Day 1 on the boat. So called because the trip is billed as a 5 day voyage but it is actually 6 days, 5 nights. We woke up at 6am with the sun. I´d been afraid that my neck was going to be stiff from sleeping in the hammock but strangely it seems as if the hammock worked out all the kinks and it hadn´t felt this good in weeks. Breakfast was horrible. Some sickeningly sweet coffee-like substance and a small stale roll of bread. Mmm, mmm, good. Lunch was much better but very salty. Typical northern Brazilian food of rice, plain spaghetti noodles, beans and chicken. Dinner was the same sans the beans. Eating on the boat is the part that makes you feel like you´re in prison. The bathrooms are the part that make you feel like you´re in hell. The dinner table seats about 12 but they set out places for 18 or 20 and put out the big bowls of the food from which you serve yourself. If you want more you have to be quick about it because they bowls are sometimes taken away rather abruptly. Everyone shovels their food down as quickly as possible so that the next group of people lining the decks can get in to dine. The line is the worst because you´re standing between the people in bottom floor hammocks and the extremely gross bathrooms. I won´t delve into the state of the bathrooms. Yoshi and I learned quickly to just wait until the absolutely last minute and get in for the last meal serving. It was a bit less rushed and much more pleasant. The day passed by quickly. We watched local kids quickly paddle little boats up close to us and then bop up and down in our boats wake while their parents paddled up as close as they could and in a cowboy like maneuver attached their boat to ours so they could glide with us and sell small salty shrimps and strange looking fruits.
On the next day we stopped in a small town were we were allowed off for half an hour to walk around and stretch our legs. We didn´t wander very far away because everyone was afraid of missing the boat. After that kind of exertion it was time for my mid-afternoon nap. I´m reading a great book about the life and times of Cleopatra for which I was forever thankful because it´s written really well in a way that transports you to another place and time if only for a short while. When that wasn´t enough to keep my attentions, I knew it was time to bring out the big guns, my little stash of rum. People on the boat start drinking early, boy. I suppose it´s because we get up so early but usually after my mid-morning nap, I frequently see people milling around with cold beers from the bar. Well, I suppose it does get quite hot as well. My hammock was pretty much dead center in hammock city which was great both when the sun was blazing down on the edges of the boat and during the twice or thrice daily rainstorms. On the third day we reached Santerem where I´d considered getting off for a few days but when we stopped I was glad I´d decided in the end to just keep on going to Manaus. About a third of the boat go off and about the same number if not a few more got on. We had about 3 hours to check out the town and get a proper meal. Santerem was a nice little town but just as Nilton had told me, it was a lot like Belem, just smaller.
Day 4 was extremely rainy in the morning but when it finally let up the clouds were gone and we had a great sunset and a brilliant view of the stars. Our stop that afternoon was one of the best as their was a bar right across from the dock and a group of us hung out sharing beers. I spent the afterrnoon coloring Yoshi´s hair, no, he´s not a natuaral blonde and making a necklace with some of the beads I´d bought in Belem. A Brazilian woman even offered to buy it off of me. Brazilians in general are very nice people and it was no different on the boat. We became friendly with a few families and they took us under their wing. On the first 3 days of the trip there were a group of young Seventh Day Adventists who would sing in the early morning and just before sunset. Really nice kids. Day 5 was just thrilling knowing that we would soon arrive. The day passed quickly as did the evening but no one went to bed early that night because we all wanted to be awake to see Manaus. After finishing the rum with Yoshi I somehow found myself in a dice game with the Canadian guys and some locals drinking beers and making lots of noise. Then, there it was, bright lights, big city. It was almost midnight so most everyone opted to stay on the boat until morning. Manuas is not know to be the most safe of cities.
First thing inthe morning, Yoshi, an American guy named Jeff and I found a room to share (with air-conditioning, heaven) and headed straight out across town by bus to another dock where the Rio Negro, which is coffee black, and the cafe au lait colored Rio Solimoes, flow side by side without mixing. We crossed it in a fast little boat to a nearby island where we played a few games of pool before heading back for free on a big barge for transporting cars and buses. It was really an amazing sight to see the water change color so drastically. It really has to be seen to be believed. We had a late lunch near the big fish market at the port. The fish was so fresh tasting and a great change from our boat rations. That night we wandered to the streets nearby and caught a few beers at a small bar/restaurant where we bumped into a lot of people from our boat. Back at the hotel it was a little weird sleeping on a bed again but I made do. I´m such a trooper! Spent my last day walking around Manaus taking in a few of the sites but the the weather turned rainy and here I am blogging my little heart away. Gosh I can´t really believe it. I left San Francisco one year ago today and had started planning my trip about a year before that. From the very beginning I knew that I wanted to take a boat down the Amazon. The scenery was amazing and the whole experience was utterly relaxing. I´m so glad I did it and I´m so glad to be back on dry land. On to the Pantanal.