Cruising down the Amazon River

We arrived at the docks at 7:30am. Our boat was scheduled to leave at noon, but the guidebook insisted we arrive a few hours early to claim the best spot on the boat: i.e. as far away from the engine and the bathrooms as possible. 
  Apart from two other Canadian girls that arrived at the same time as us, there were 4 people on the boat when we got there. Definitely could have slept in. Nonetheless, we set up our hammocks, got some breakfast and were overly enthusiastic to start lounging in out hammocks.

Meeting Hilary and Diane (the two Canadian girls) was great because it allowed us to switch off watching bags to get breakfast, shower, walk around etc for the next few days. The four of us got a prime location on the top deck and were ready to set sail by 8:15AM!
  By noon I had already made it through a good chunk of my book. The hammock was still comfortable, and we were anticipating leaving very shortly. Huge cargo trucks full of vegetables were unloading their goods on to the boat to distribute to settlements along the river as we went. We watched them pack on the boxes with surprising speed until at last the two trucks were empty. Then another two arrived.  When they had finished unloading, two more showed up; and after that, another… By five o’clock that evening they were still loading up their 7000th box of green tomatoes! I honestly have no idea how all that food fit onto our ship. We finally pulled away from the dock at 5:34PM.

 

Time in the hammock: 9hrs 19minutes

 

Time left to Manaus: 6 days!

Before the boat even left I was already starting my second book. I started reading Shantaram, which is a long, but an INCREDIBLE story – Nikki, thank you for the suggestion, I don’t know how I could have survived the trip without this book!  
Food was sold on the boat for a very reasonable price! However, the selection was the exact same every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Scrambled eggs in a bun for breakfast, and a rice, spaghetti, salad and steak plate or steak soup for lunch and dinner (In all fairness, they did offer the same meal with a chicken option for two of the nights… LUCKY!). I can’t believe I still enjoyed the food by the last day, although I was thrilled to switch up the meal when we hit Manaus.

Other than eating at designated mealtimes downstairs, there was very little else to do on the boat. Showers were small and just straight, cold, river water. They had two, long, uncomfortable wooden benches, a few scattered plastic chairs and a rooftop with a steel seating area. Thus, we spent a ridiculous amount of time in our hammocks. 
When I first imagined our river trip, all I could picture was “hot” and “mosquitoes“. I had looked up the temperature in January before I left and it was 44 degrees Celcius with 95% humidity… Oh my God. I pictured us sweating under a mosquito net, trying not to cover up skin, but avoiding malaria at the same time! In reality, it was the complete opposite. The movement of the boat kept all but the strongest mosquitoes away: that, and the fact that I have been taking my malaria pills, I have three types of bug spray, a mosquito net, long sleeves and pants (that are NOT black) and I have been taking propolis extract.  Propolis is a liquid that you drop into your water a few days before a mosquito zone, which you later sweat out and mosquitoes leave you alone – recommended to me by locals. I was set! I was amazed, as someone who draws mosquitoes to her anywhere within a 5km radius, that one, or a combination of these methods worked!  In fact, I managed to come out almost completely unscathed! I had a few bites that were only itchy for an hour and then gone! Hallelujah!

 

As well, it wasn’t hot! Actually, with the wind from the boat moving, and the cool air from each night’s thunderstorms, it was FREEZING! I wore pretty much everything I own AND wrapped myself in my hammock and still shivered through the night!! (Caitlin, it was very reminiscent of when you woke up at Oktoberfest and found me wearing 18 layers of clothing and huddled in my sleeping bag that was good to +10 degrees Celcius [ironically the same temperature that human skin is good to]).  Depressingly, each night on the boat seemed to be colder than the last. Adam even has a picture of me on the last morning, so bundled up in stuff, that only my nose was visible from under all the layers. I wore pants the ENTIRE trip, and long sleeves shirts went on as soon as the sun set (Yes, I do mean shirts, plural). I couldn’t believe it! We were only a couple hundred kilometers from the EQUATOR!! I don’t know what the temperature actually was, but I know we haven’t acclimatized that much!

By day 2 and a half on the boat I couldn’t feel my lower back. Having spent the better part of two days SOLELY in a hammock, it became an excruciating task just leaning over to pick things up off the ground. No position, sitting or lying down, was comfortable! I found myself doing stretches and yoga at least three times a day just to have a reasonably content two hours sitting back in my hammock! I flipped and flopped during the day: sitting up to read, crossing my legs, and then using a rolled up jacket as lumbar support.  In the night I rolled myself into a thousand different positions, trying desperately to forget the pain and cold and get some shuteye before the loudspeakers blared Brazilian dance remixes of American country songs and Michel Telo’s ever-popular “Nossa, Nossa” at 8AM.  By day 6 I think we were all thrilled to pack up our things and get into a real bed. Adam timed every second he was in his hammock and managed an impressive 89 hours 11 mins 7seconds out of a possible 126 hours. We figured I was about 15 hours more than that… Which is disgusting, and NOT recommended whatsoever!

However, apart from sleeping and eating, the river trip was WONDERFUL! We traveled through areas where the river was just a little wider than the boat we were in. The surrounding jungle was THICK! So much so I can’t imagine ever being able to explore it for the first time! There is thick, green foliage in every spare inch of the jungle, right up into the water. The plant life was unique, and varied and very, very green. The thing I found most fascinating, however, was the people that LIVE right on the river’s edge! Old wooden shacks are scattered along the length of the river where families survive off the land. They travel extensively by canoes that they paddle up and down the river, fishing for food. Little kids would paddle up along side our boat, tie themselves to the back, and climb aboard our ship. They ran around playing games, selling food and begging for food and gifts. I gave a couple of the little girls the Canadian pencils that I’d been carrying around for that exact purpose. One little girl looked LESS than enthused when I gave her a pencil instead of money and stared at me with a blank expression for over a minute. I finally took out my eyeliner sharpener and sharpened it for her, then scribbled in my book and gave it back. Her expression didn’t change a bit, so I waved her away. HOWEVER, when we were at lunch a little later, we saw her clutching the pencil like it was the winning prize at a fair. When we got back upstairs Diane had said that she and other kids came back asking for more pencils to have. So I guess they were happy with them in the end!

At other parts of the trip, you could hardly see the other side of the river it was so wide! We even came across a huge cruise ship that did a two-week circuit from the Dominican, down the length of the Amazon to Manaus. It shocked me that such a large ship could even fit through the channels, it obviously had to have taken another route. But wide or narrow, the river was beautiful. I couldn’t get over the fact that we were actually ON the Amazon River, and floating up the entire length of it! On the second day, after watching all the native kids row around on the river from their little huts, I turned to Adam and exclaimed that this was one of the coolest things I’ve done in all my travels! Just seeing how life works in the jungle is eye opening and surreal! On some flatter parts of the jungle, a few families had even made small farms, with goats and cows and horses all penned up along the river edge. The houses were all on stilts, which would be necessary when the river floods in the rainy season, and people moved around on makeshift walkways in the air that connected houses to sheds and docks. Our boat stopped in several small settlements along the way to unload goods from Belem. Some of them very small, others, like Santarem, we’re surprisingly developed for such a remote place in the middle of the jungle. None of them were as advanced as Manaus however. Our final destination was a huge city, right in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Manaus has become the hub of the Amazon jungle, and I think we were all shocked at how developed it was when we pulled up in our boat six days after leaving our port in Belem!

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