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!

Belem: Detox Days

Adam is pumped to finally be at the Amazon River

To be honest, we did nothing in Belem. We desperately needed to sleep and detox after Carnaval, and quickly got comfortable lounging around our hostel.  Soon, even the most menial tasks were overwhelming. Originally, we were supposed to spend 24 hours in the city.  It was going to be a quick stopover before we booked hammock space on a cargo boat and cruised the length of the Amazon River from Belem to Manaus.  When we arrived, however, we found out that a brand new boat was sailing for Manaus this upcoming Saturday.  The lady ensured us it would be very nice and, not being in much of a hurry, we decided to hang around for 4 days.

 

Each day we came up with a task to complete. Groceries. Laundry. Buy hammock. After we completed one task, we felt accomplished and could spend the morning and the evening catching up on reading.  So that’s what we did. 
Our mornings were filled with LOTS of coffee drinking and writing; then, each afternoon we spent a little time at the market.

Belem’s market is THE largest open aired market in all of South America! It runs along the riverfront and holds just about everything you can imagine.  To begin with, there are rows upon rows of clothing: sweatshirts, t-shirts, football jerseys, bathing suits and the such.  Then Hammocks.  Hammocks are a very popular commodity in Brazil is seems, and Belem’s market had colourful, hand-woven hammocks strung up all throughout the stands. After that there were crafts, and trinkets, and carvings, and toys.  Then finally the food began!  Hundreds of cheap eateries all packed together in one area.  Each sold a version of fish and meat with the usual rice, spaghetti, beans and salad.  They had wooden stools to sit on, and one, very reasonable, price for everything (we paid a little less than $3US for a massive plate of food that neither of us could finish).  After the eateries were vegetable markets. Huge pallets of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and MANY things I’d never even seen before.  I’m assuming these were local to the area, and, with one of the most diverse ecosystem’s on Earth at your fingertips, I’m sure there were an endless number of unique foods sold there. After the fruits and vegetables, venders sold hundreds of little vials of liquids all labeled in Portuguese. It wasn’t until I looked in our guidebook later that we realized they were extracts from plants found in the Amazon jungle. They were natural healing remedies that the locals used, apparently, quite frequently! Bottles of coconut milk were sold, then the meat: live chickens, ducks, rabbits etc were in cages all waiting to be freshly picked for eating. Finally came the fish. The smell was horrid, as to be expected in an outdoor fish market, but the selection was incredible. Every day the fishermen go out early in the morning to fish, by 5am they are all back at port and selling their goods to the venders. It’s a hectic scene as people shout prices and throw around fish, trying to get the best deals (as we saw on our last morning when we passed on the bus early in the morning).

At the more “affluent” end of the market – which was enclosed and air-conditioned – there were loads of expensive buffets, small restaurants and a brewery. We found and acai berry shop and sat down for prawns and acai on our first day in Belem. We ended up sitting with a couple from California that we had literally met only 20 seconds earlier. They heard us speaking English, asked us where we were from, and we asked them to join us for lunch. Afterwards, we remarked how different things can be when you travel. I HIGHLY doubt I would invite a random couple for lunch on the sole fact that they speak the same language as me back in Vancouver! But it’s such a normal thing to befriend someone instantly when you are in a different country.

 

 

We all loved the acai. It is actually everywhere you turn in Brazil, so I’m amazed it took us this long to try it. At this place they sold it in litres; it comes out in a thick dark purple liquid that has a similar consistency to yogurt. It has a fairly bitter taste alone, and will stain your teeth purple in an instant, but, after adding a little sugar and tapioca, the stuff was delicious! Not to mention, it’s considered the super berry of the world with all the supposed health benefits it provides. We’ve had it several times since in Brazil, and I’ll be on the look out in Vancouver when I’m back!

 

Our lazy few days were easily pushed along by the weather. Although it was hot and muggy during the afternoon, by about 5 o’clock everyday the rains came in. I suppose that’s why the Amazon is considered a rainforest.  But these were not just normal rains; these were torrential thunderstorms that boomed across the city for a few hours each evening.  I have never heard thunder this loud before. The rain bucketed down in waterfalls all across the city and even within our hostel walls I jumped with every clash of thunder. The storm lasted just a few hours, then calmed down around 9 or 10. So we spent that time watching movies and playing cards: a far better alternative to bearing the storm outdoors!

 

When Saturday arrived it was time for the boat! We were up at a ridiculous hour of the morning (first from a man wailing in the halls of the hostel at 3am, and then from our alarm a couple hours later) to set up our spot on the boat and trek up the entire length of the Amazon proper!