Part 1 – The First Meeting
“Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time. – Paulo Coelho”
I think I can safely say that Amazon Adventure by Willard Price made an indelible impression on any child who ever read it. It takes very little to once again conjure up the dreams of gigantic trees, colourful birds, screeching monkeys, torrential rain and lurking danger.
One of the biggest advantages of having one’s own sailboat is that you can do journeys one can usually only dream of, but sailing up the Amazon with our home-built 35ft aluminium sloop “Ongemak” was not to be; at least not this time around. After lots of research the conclusion was that, although it would most probably be safe, especially if one avoids the big cities, you would never be able to relax completely.
Part of the allure of any adventure is the calculated risk of venturing off the beaten track, but this for me does not include looking over my shoulder for pirates. Remember, these are not the cute Johnny Depp Captain Jack Sparrow pirates who will make you laugh as they steal your rum. It’s difficult to laugh while the doctor examines your jaw in Itacoatiara’s casualty department when your passport and outboard motor have just been stolen.
We were, however, not about to let go of our dream completely. For us, the second-best option was the infamous Amazon public ferryboat trip, a journey of more than a thousand kilometres whispered about in equal amounts of fear and awe.
Ronell decided to stay at the marina and make use of the good Wi-Fi connection to catch up on work. A “dangerous” jungle trip would keep the guys out of her hair and also give them some boy time to boot, so Ongemak was left in Marina do Frances in Cabedelo, Brazil, in her very capable hands. Little did we know that danger was lurking closer to home than Willard Price’s jungle, as is ironically often the case, and that soon one of Ronell’s hands would be temporarily rendered less capable, but I am getting ahead of myself.
What follows is a true account of some of our Brazilian travelling adventures. Names have not been changed because none of us are that innocent anymore. Although I sincerely hope that armchair-travellers will find the story worthwhile, I have attempted to include information that those wishing to do the same kind of adventure will find useful. With this trip being so multifaceted, I have also used the opportunity to share some general travelling tips which novices might find especially helpful.
The truth is sometimes indeed stranger than fiction and if this was a movie I was watching I would have definitely felt that the exaggeration was a bit unnecessary. Surely floating down the biggest, most famous river in the world, snaking through the deepest, darkest rainforest on the planet for almost a week, sleeping in an open hammock on an unenclosed deck amongst hundreds of local travellers with the dark waters of the Amazon rushing past just a few meters away, is enough? Apparently not so.
If one wants to do the classic trip, your choice is to go upstream from Belem to Manaus or downstream from Manaus to Belem. We decided to start in Belem as we heard that the upstream ferry is slightly more picturesque. It hugs the shore in order to partially escape from the main water mass trying its best to push everything in and on it into the sea; the Amazon river dumps 175 000 tons of water into the Atlantic ocean every second. If you’re on a tight schedule, keep in mind that this also means the upstream journey is a couple of days longer.
But, with everything about this trip being so last minute, there were no bus tickets to Belem available for many days. Even cruising sailors have their time restraints and we had to opt for an expensive flight (R 4 500 or 325USD) to Manaus the next day.
Muir’s Guide to Travelling: tip no 1 – there are a couple of things one needs to think of well before leaving on any trip abroad. Make sure you have a passport with at least 6 months validity left, as well as some open pages for visas and stamps. Check whether you need a visa or visas for the countries you are visiting. Find out whether you need any vaccinations (like yellow fever) and remember your inoculation card (read Oloff’s very relevant “How not to Travel”). Also, as soon as you know what you want to do, book your flights. It is always one of the biggest expenses of a trip and almost always gets pricier closer to the time.
It was with our arrival in Manaus that events started to develop a distinct feeling of magic realism. I guess we should have known that at the confluence of two of the biggest rivers in the world, the Rio Negro and the Rio Amazonas, it would not only be water that meets in a wild and unexpected way.
The First Meeting
We knew that our good friends Paolo and Cairo, also from South-Africa, were also in Brazil on holiday. We had dismissed any chance of meeting up as Brazil is 8.5 million square kilometres big (roughly seven times the size of South-Africa) and they were on a fancy package jungle holiday whereas we are following our noses around the globe on our yacht.
Still, on landing in Manaus at 10 am, something told Oloff to check their itinerary times. Our jaws dropped. They were flying back home, out of the same airport we were at, in 2 hours’ time, which means they were probably busy checking in.
Muir’s Guide to Travelling: tip no 2 – many travellers, myself included, find it a bit sad and frustrating that in our modern technological world it is so difficult to truly “get away from it all”, but one needs to embrace the concomitant advantages. Take a smartphone with you on your trip and get a local SIM card with some data on arrival in your country of travel or, alternatively, just hop between free WiFi spots, nowadays offered by almost all airports and even the tiniest coffee shops. From ordering an Uber to making hotel bookings or WhatsApp calls, it makes life much easier.
One WhatsApp call later we were sitting across from one another in an airport diner, beers in hand, silly grins firmly in place.
We knew we had precious little time, so we had to talk and drink fast. Paolo, Cairo and friends had just finished a luxurious 4 day Amazon cruise. We’re talking air-conditioned cabins, ensuite bathrooms, delicious all-you-can-eat buffets and sunset cocktails. Paolo is the first to admit that this is how he always travels.
It was thus a completely Gabriel Garcia Marques moment when Cairo said, in her usual calm and honest way and obviously not as a joke: “Did you hear that Paolo is coming with you?” I stopped chewing and looked at my sandwich. I didn’t ask for magic mushrooms.
Muir’s Guide to Travel: tip no 3 – Choose your travel companions carefully. People, even family, partners and friends whom you know well, have got different styles of travelling and might be on different budgets and have different expectations of a trip. Discuss this as a group before you leave. On top of that, travelling is wonderfully unpredictable and dishes out equal amounts of problems you need to solve and beautifully unexpected opportunities. When things go slightly avocado-pear shaped or when amazing adventures pop out of thin air, it helps to be with cool, independent, spontaneous people who can take care of themselves and also understand the joy of occasionally being completely impulsive.
And indeed, there were no drugs involved. Our usually quite predictable friend was just truly seizing the moment. His group’s time in Brazil was at an end, he had some leave left, he had his passport and wallet with him and he had the encouragement and understanding of his fabulous partner. He had nothing else though. His luggage was already checked in back to South Africa. He had his day-pack as hand-luggage and the clothes on his body. In short, and t-shirt, he had taken one of the ballsiest travel decisions I have ever heard of. Can we all just pause for a moment and take our hats off to Paolo, please.
As I sat there admiring him, nodding and smiling, I felt distinctly like a pastor officiating a marriage, thinking to myself: “Has he got any idea what he is getting himself into?” But, just like that, the three of us were off on our adventure. After checking into a hotel, we looked at one another and realised we hadn’t the faintest clue what the next step was. Another round of beers and we had the answer: boat tickets!
I know what you’re thinking: couldn’t you at least have booked that beforehand. The thing is, we did actually do research about it and it’s surprisingly tricky. The concluding recommendation of most blogs is to just go down to the harbour and buy them there. This might be the only dead sure way of seeing exactly what you’re getting yourself into and to avoid getting horribly overcharged, although I have subsequently discovered that the boat we got onto has a Facebook page, so things might be changing. Going to the harbour does, however, provide a great opportunity for some local interaction and a peep behind the scenes of Manaus’ busy working harbour.
I was carefully descending the warn, slippery, gangway steps, which were reverberating under the weight and noise of hundreds of human feet carrying cargo down to the myriad of waiting vessels of every possible colour, size and shape. The feeling that I was a character in One Hundred Years of Solitude had just started to subside when my phone rang. The second, much less pleasant meeting, had occurred.