(Dear Readers. Part 3 is now all here. Enjoy!)
Ednison stood with one leg on board and one leg on the jetty. In his hands the massive mooring line, our last link with the land, started slipping as the ferry slowly pulled away. The only problem was: Paolo was nowhere to be seen. I was pleading with Ednison. He in turn shouted up to the first-mate on the bridge who conveyed the message to the captain. Having already given us 5 minutes, this time our answer was the reverberating sound of the ship’s horn saying goodbye to Manaus… and to Paolo. But suddenly there he was, being pulled on board by Ednison over the gunwale, half jumping half falling. A second later the jetty was cleared. We were on the Amazon River.
___ ___ ___ ___
As we looked down onto the third meeting, the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Rio Amazonas, from the top viewing deck of our ship, a feeling of tranquil expectation finally settled on our party. It was subtly supported by the ice cold Brahma beers from the kiosk one floor down, but it was mostly just having front row seats to the opening act of one of natures most powerful pageants.
Like distant cousins forced together by an awkward family Christmas, the two rivers initially just simply refuse to mix. What looks like a dark shadow on the water up ahead, thrown by some gigantic cloud, reveals itself as a twirling, stubborn, Van Gogh-like division between the light brown muddy water of the Amazon and the pitch black hummus-rich water of the Negro. Even when one finally passes right over the confluence it still plays tricks on your eyes with the dark and light water caught in a tranquillising dance; even the flotsam and jetsam seemingly preferring one side or the other.
Underneath the surface things are equally weird and wonderful. The temporary incompatibility of these related water masses is caused by remarkable differences in their temperature, density and speed of flow. There are even fish species which can only survive in one or the other. Roughly 6km from their initial meeting, however, someone brings out the Caipirinhas; and what can they say but “Saúde!”. The sandy Rio Amazonas finally embraces the silt-less Rio Negro and all is forgiven.
With the show over, talk turns to the morning’s excitement. Jokes abound about Paolo’s last minute shopping trip which had almost cost him his journey, but had doubled his wardrobe: he now had two T-shirts!
The other expected spectacle was that of retaining our good hammock positions. Horror stories about how crowded and crazy it gets are many. Maybe we were just lucky, but we found this to be exaggerated. People generally are quiet and respectful. Every now and then newcomers would casually start hanging their hammocks very close to and sometimes in between our three, but we were always able to convince them that we needed the space, usually by just pointing to Paolo who is taller than me by a head.
With each meander of the Amazon now taking us further from Manaus though, the morning’s rush and the stresses of the city started slipping like cloaks from our shoulders and, transformed by the jungle breeze into Scarlet Macaws, they simply flew away. During the 6 days that followed, Facebook grimaces would make way for true half-smiles of wonderment, and track of time would be lost in the temporary and fleeting beauty of the un-Instagrammed life.
The San Marino III cannot be called, aesthetically speaking, an attractive boat. She is, after-all, a Brazilian workhorse and not an Italian Riviera cruiser. One quickly falls in love with her though, and with every day you spend with her she becomes more beautiful. Apart from the odd shudder or moan, this 70m long, bright orange, 4 deck ferryboat carries her almost 600 passengers and many tons of cargo with surprisingly little noise and vibration. If you go and explore as deep as the engine room, you are sure to find enough clamour and commotion, but from bowels to bulwarks, the San Marino certainly looks well maintained.
With the extra height above the water and 360 degree uninterrupted views, the open-air top viewing deck would remain our favourite hangout spot for the duration of our journey. The rush of the river, the different greens of the gigantic wall of trees passing by, the thrill of a flash thunderstorm with the sun on your back afterwards, the mouldy smells of the jungle: all merged into a full-house sensory experience. Add to this the good company of interesting fellow travellers and one or two of those ice cold Brahmas, alternated with some quiet time with a good book, and life could indeed not be more perfect.
It was time to eat. We had heard and read terrible tales of the on-board meals, so our initial approach was cautious. We also brought lots of safe snacks and drinking water from shore, but this turned out to be completely unnecessary. There were drinking water faucets on every deck and around the corner from our hammocks was the kiosk selling anything from beer to Barbie dolls. They even had Two-Minute-Noodles as well as the whole range of yummy Brazilian crisps containing all your essential MSGs.
But, they also had a little glass display with “salgadinhos” and behind that the lady was toasting some ham and cheese sandwiches. Decisions had to be made. The smell of anything-deep-fried won and soon we were all sitting with, yes, ice cold Brahmas and traditional pastries or toasties in hand.
The big test, however, was going to be the cooked meals from the furnaces below. I must admit, as I descended the steps to the dungeon like kitchen, I had my doubts. Waiting in line with our 15 Real meal tickets though (about R 60 or 4 USD), I started to admire the friendliness and efficiency of the galley and staff. Big arms were stirring big pots, full grills were flaming and before you knew it your broken Portuguese banter with the cook had gotten you almost what you ordered.
Muir’s Guide to Travelling: tip no 4 – Don’t deny yourself the joys of local food, including street food. For those who eat meat, that weird little thing being flame-grilled in front of your eyes by the side-walk vendor might actually be safer than your cheap hotel’s yesterday’s-ham-today-buffet. If you like silly acronyms, then remember Wapeefrigribo! Washed, peeled, fried, grilled or boiled. First prize is if it happens within sight. Second prize is if it arrives sizzling or steaming. Vegans and vegetarians can opt for vegetable stews and bean soups, often served piping hot, although language barriers might make it difficult to be sure it’s completely meat free. Peelable fruit is natures gift to the traveler. I tend to avoid cold salads. Freshly baked goods are usually safe. Bugs love moisture, so make sure the topping on your cake looks fresh. And remember to trust your senses. If something looks or smells off, don’t eat it. If any bite of your food tastes funny, spit it out and don’t eat the rest. Verify that water is safe to drink, otherwise purify. Lastly, keep your itinerary in mind. Don’t eat a massive meal from a dicey backstreet restaurant just before you get on your 40 hour bus ride. The other passengers definitely do not want to see what you had for lunch, and you’ve seen it already.
Most often some stew or chicken, sometimes beef, always with vegetables or some salad, the food was nothing exotic, but always tasty and well prepared. For those of you with a cruel streak, hoping for some horror stories involving toilet humour, I’m sorry to disappoint. None of us got sick. Not even after Paolo, who kept on surprising us and himself, showed up with a plastic bag full of salted shrimps, bought off a local fishing boat which came alongside. They went down deliciously with, you guessed it, some ice cold Brahmas.
One of the most unpredictable and often intimidating aspects of any trip is going to the toilet. The look on Paolo’s face when he returned from the “bathroom” said it all. No, he didn’t make it past the door, never mind to the toilet, and staying in there long enough to shower was completely out of the question. He truly looked worried, but I could see a plan was forming as he stared over the Amazon. He vanished for half an hour and returned with good news. He had figured out that the ablution facilities on the lower deck, which are generally more crowded, are actually cleaned more often. When I saw him again, he was freshly showered and had a distinct spring in his step.
Muir’s Guide to Travelling: tip no 5 – Thinking of how handy my kikoi (sarong) came in for use as a towel, maybe a quick word on what and how to pack for a journey like this. I love getting away with just a small carry-on backpack, which worked perfectly in this case (the only disadvantage with aeroplane carry-on only is not being able to take your Swiss Army pocketknife). Take functional clothes you like and which fits you comfortably. Take stuff which you know you’re going to use, not that unwanted gift in the back of your cupboard which you feel you ought to use. Check the 10 day weather forecast. I didn’t take a sleeping bag and the combination of cloth-hammock and kikoi kept me completely warm enough. Here is a list of things I took with me or used, with comments:
- Hammock (many shops next to the harbour sell these; anything from 30 to 100 Real, that’s R 120 to R 400 or 8 to 25 USD)
- Backpack/ travel bag (30 to 40 litres, preferably with many divisions and pockets)
- Collapsible, drawstring bag (small and light, for towel and toiletries when going to shower or for use as small daybag)
- Moneybelt (flat enough to wear under your clothes, but big enough to take your wallet and smartphone)
- Smartphone plus charger
- Hat or cap
- Light sweater
- Light windproof jacket
- Off-zip hiking pants
- Swimsuit or Board short (preferably with pocket on the side and not on the back, so you don’t sit on the contents)
- Running shoes or sneakers (and socks)
- Sandals/ flip-flops (plastic or rubber, not leather, so you can shower in them or walk in the rain)
- Minimal toiletries and medicine (biodegradable wet-wipes are very nice to have; remember sunscreen and water purification tablets)
- 2 Kikois/sarongs (one to use as a towel and the other as a blanket)
- A good book
I put down my book and switched off my headlamp. We had all grown to love our hammocks and spent many hours a day just lying in them chatting or napping, but could one actually get a decent night’s rest in one? As with everything, we had heard different opinions. Some said they slept like a baby. Some said it is hell on your back. Some advocated trying to lie completely obliquely for a straighter posture. All these things were going through my mind as I swayed in my hammock from side to side to the rhythm of the river and the jungle. Returning from dreamland 10 hours later, I sure had my answer.
On a journey like this, there are enough special moments to fill a book. The days echoed the river and started flowing into one-another. I had no idea what day or date it was as one gorgeous sunrise lead to the next breathtaking sunset. The only night, and day, when I was sure of the date, is when the boat stopped in the small town of Santarem for New Year’s Eve. There’s no space to elaborate, but if there isn’t a saying “Jungle people know how to party” I’m coining it!
The ends of journeys are sad things. I am not going to dwell on it too much here. Early one morning, something out of place and ominous appeared on the horizon: it was the skyscrapered skyline of the city of Belem, and a shadow fell over my heart. Somewhere, buses and planes were waiting to take us away and we would slowly forget this life. But when I close my eyes, I can feel that river flowing and I can smell the forest. And out of the corner of my mind’s eye, I see a Scarlet Macaw flying away.