Wednesday, July 25, 2007

6 Days on the Amazon River

(Note: There are a bunch more pictures of the Amazon below this article, so please scroll down!)

We left Belem on the Rondonia, a 200 or so foot steel catamaran in pretty blue and white. We splurged on a private cabin, as it was only about 50 dollars more apiece than a hammock on the lower deck, open to the air with public bath. It proved to be the right choice, as long hours watching movies, reading and working on the computer in the cooler climes of the double bed gave ample empirical evidence of a wise decision.

We were joined on the boat by our American friend Dave who has been traveling solo 2.5 years south of the border on his Suzuki V-Strom who also opted for a cabin, even negotiating a better rate than we did. Another advantage of the cabins is a private dining room serving slightly better fare, for example fresh fruit in the morning as opposed to a piece of bread and coffee for the hoi polloi.

Our last day in Belem was spent doing typical Brazilian things. We showed up at 9 a.m. as instructed, to put our motos on the boat for the 6 p.m. launch. We waited around 3 hours, anxiously looking at our watches as we were due at our friends house for a 12:30 goodbye luch. Our local friend showed up and greased the way with a $10 dollar bribe of the man in charge of loading our boat, and we rode them up and in to the hold, to the anointed place. The ramp was made of a beautiful piece of wood worth a couple hundred dollars at least in the USA. It was hardwood, perhaps mahogany, about 20 feet long, 2 inches thick and about 14 inches wide with nary a knot in sight on either of the two twin boards. Our boarding was followed by a mammoth longshoreman of girth to rival the largest of the Amazon trees driving a mini car up the same ramps. At the precipice the front wheels dangled over the front lip of the board while the car got caught up with the angle and weight of the human cannonball. The engine was gunned, a push was given and the car lurched forward and as the rear wheels left the ramp the bumper caught the wood and a loud crunch was heard, plastic pieces split in various directions, and the gazes of the boat workers did the same all pretending not to have seen anything.
What we saw convinced us not to let others load, move or touch our bikes any more than possible.

We headed off to a fantastic home cooked lunch, where we were joined by our hosts, their grandson who is in medical school and Dave. Discussions of medical treatments in England, USA and Brazil prevailed, along with discussions with the problems and advantagages of our host country. After receiving presents of Caipirinha glasses and decks of cards for the journey, we set off back towards the boat, enjoying a street side ice cream cone to offset the heavy heat.

We stopped at the Theatro de Paz, the “Theater of Peace” built in the 1880’s after the conclusion of the war with Paraguay and which had recently undergone a gorgeous, respectful renovation. It was a large Opera house, with 4 balcony tiers, gorgeous paintings on the ceilings and walls, in an oval shape. The building had huge anterooms outside on both side for smoking. They were rectangularly shaped, covered as inside the footprint of the building with 25 foot marble columns supporting the roof structure. However, the most magnificent part of the gorgeous building was the ballroom between the front balcony overlooking the adjoining park and the main theater floor. The ballroom was the width of the building and about 40 feet deep with 3 story ceilings halved by a continuous balcony overlooking the dancing floor. And what a floor it was! Divided into three sections all of native hardwoods, separated by unique inlaid borders. The middle of the floors obtained a three dimensional affect of overlapping squares by using dark and light woods, angles and a lighter shaded brown wood that have the affect of a shadow where two squares would overlap. Magnificent thought and workmanship! The two side floors alternated dark and light boards in angled striped patterns that mirrored each other, appropriately reflected in gilded French mirrors of height and width appropriate to such a room on each of the walls not divided by glass doors leading in or out of the building. The front deck was large and sunsplashed, lit in the evenings by corner statues of the female personifications of the sun and the moon holding appropriate torches. This was all overseen by the busts 15 feet up the main wall of the buildings of the four Gods of Theater: Tragedy, Comedy, Music and Poetry.

All and all, it was one of the most beautiful buildings, and certainly had the most beautiful floors, of the entire trip so far. One is often tempted to say in such instances that “they don’t build them like this anymore” or that “no one can afford to build like this anymore” but it simply isn’t true. This building was a poignant reminder of what peoples and societies can do when they are not at war. In this case as soon as the War with Paraguay was over they had the money to build this beautiful building. What could the USA or the world build, if it wasn’t spending a billion dollars a day in Iraq? It is a question that haunts this trip as the low value of the US dollar is a constant reminder that the world does not have much confidence monetarily in a country that gets involved in foreign wars financed by debt for unspoken reasons and more dubious benefit.

We walked back to the boat, bought some $1 DVD’s and last minute provisions to make it to the boat by the 6 pm scheduled launch time. We discovered the lounge area infested with a swarm of African Bees who had been housed in a speaker. They used the same tactic was had learned in Panama of turning off the lights to calm them. An hour or so later the beekeepers arrived with full suits, flaming torches and spray killer. Thousands died in a matter of minutes, and just like that the crisis was over, the music and beer again started flowing. The finish to our Brazilian day of delay, bribery, hospitality, splendor, bees and heat was sitting around for hours waiting for the boat to leave. The Captain told us that he was waiting for the tide to be high enough but this seemed to be the typical white lie told to overly inquisitive tourists, when after loading the products of the last truck onto the ferry, we set off at 11 pm despite the lowest waters of the day.

The next morning we woke, refreshed and ready for what would be our standard fare of watermelon and papaya or pineapple, with bread, cheese and meat product one is best not to inspect too closely. Later in the morning we got our first glimpse of Amazon life and custom. Children as young as 4 or 5 up to teenagers, sometimes with their mothers, would row out to our ferry in dilapidated canoes of dugout tree trunks and the passengers would throw them gifts wrapped in plastic supermarket bags. Food, toys and clothes were thrown down to waving hands; the givers and receivers knowing nothing of each other, never to meet, just a show of generosity of those better off to those not as fortunate with no contact with the outside world other than these passing mammoth ships and an occasional provision boat. What is amazing is that a citizen of the G-8 would never guess after looking upon those in the lower decks, who seem to have their life possessions in 3 or 4 boxes, as the type to think ahead to buy things for strangers. But such is the way of life in Brazil where kindness to ones fellow man is a way of life.

This went on for a couple hours at least as we wound through the narrow channels that would lead to the main Amazon River. Narrow is really not a correct adjective, as the river was around a quarter mile wide during this part of the journey, but it paled to the miles wide river upstream. There was a kid of about 6 with his dog, expertly rowing; pairs of sisters rowing and bailing to get close to the ship; or teams of 4, mother with small child waving and using the cute factor while two older siblings would propel and expel all working together in hope of some unknown goodie. The most adventurous boys would row right up to the boat and with an ingenious but simple metal hook with rope through it would attach to the tires on the side of the boat and surf along for fun in our wake. Some wouldn’t quite make it and would miss the boat and even capsize behind us, never to their peril, just the wet consequence of not completing the task. Later down the river vendors would use this same hook and rope tactic to sell fish, limes, and other things such as aripa a grainy, thick Brazilian drink made from a local fruit.

We fell into the routine over the next several days. Breakfast at 7:30, sleeping, reading and lounging till lunch which is the main meal of the day, made up of rice, beans, and usually a meat dish occasionally with salad which was repeated at dinner around 6 pm. The food was reasonable if not original. In the afternoon we would sit on the deck for awhile observing the muddy Amazon and the trees and flora on either side passing by around 6 mph. The boat would usually stay closer to one side or the other as the roiling current is strongest in the middle, often just 100 yards away which would afford a good opportunity to view the unending jungle.

Every so often a house on stilts would appear made of simple wooden planks just onshore, or perhaps on a bay or “igaripe” which are the streams that cut through the land. It seemed about half were occupied and as many more abandoned. The people lived from the river and the fruits of the forest. We would see them in their leaky canoes, checking lines or putting out nets for the daily catch.

What was most surprising about our trip was the lack of traffic on the river. We would go long stretches without seeing another vessel, even tiny fishing skiffs. We would only pass a few barges with containers a day, and a handful of smaller passenger vessels. This is truly an untapped part of the world, incredible for the potential of the area and its natural resources.

We stopped in a few nondescript ports such as Santarem and Pintiras. We would just get off long enough to buy some ice cream and snacks, if anything, as the heat and unimpressive buildings would diminish hopes for more thorough exploration. The time would be passed by reading, movies, limited time sunning or exercising on the upper deck where the heat and sun were delightful but strong. I learned and played dominoes with the local men and boys, and a quick game of chess was a one-timer after the best of the locals was destroyed in the first match. Of the foreigners on the trip, I was the only one who really spent the time to talk and play with the locals. As always, barriors are broken without words, smiles abound and bonds are made between people, countries and cultures. Amazing what a simple game of dominoes can do! The children are so inquisitive when hearing me speak in English, and often get a look of wonder on their face before asking me questions in Portuguese! They kept asking me to play with them, and how could I refuse? The crew was very friendly, getting us a bucket of ice after dinner so we could stir up some home made Caipirinha’s….Delicious!

We spent some time with some English backpackers on their way to Columbia, trading stories and MP3 music collections with a Texas hold’em tournament on the final night. Yours truly won the tournament played with the high stakes of match sticks and bon bons. Afternoons and evenings in the open air lounge were filled with Brazilian music either from cd, dvd or with a live singer on keyboard. They were all equal parts loud and bad, and served to limit ones time in the public spaces.

I took the time to read a book, Voyage Up the River Amazon, written in 1846 by an American Naturalist from New York, W.H. Edwards. I was struck by how little had changed in 150 years, other than the increase of people in the cities and the addition of motorized river traffic. In fact it almost seems as if the number of farms and sitio’s has decreased on the river as he describes it. Most interesting is his synopsis of what is keeping the Amazon from becoming the economic powerhouse it should be: wrong taxation especially import and export fees and weak government. Those issues are still at the forefront today, as Brazil can be very expensive despite abundance of materials and labor. Things should be cheap but people use the opportunity of foreign travel or travelers to buy them basics such as tennis shoes. Why start an orange or banana plantation here, despite the cheap land and cheap labor, and be taxed to the point where your product is as expensive as something grown on the coast of Central America or California?

In a couple of the ports, around sunset, we were lucky enough to catch fresh water porpoises frolicking about, chasing fish, swimming upside down and generally seeming to enjoy life to the fullest. Most of the wildlife we observed was birds of all feathers, from Kingfisher nests on the side of red cliffs, hawks riding the warm winds, to tiny multi colored birds skimming the water for food in swirling flocks. Almost all of the trees are green, without flowers, with the occasional dead tree or the stark species that drops all its leaves and leaves behind its drooping red fruit for the birds and insects.

We are now almost to Manaus where the dark Rio Negro meets the muddy Rio Solimoes
to form the Amazon. The two rivers run side by side in the same channel for 6 miles, the waters not mixing until further down the confluence. Manaus is the city that was the Paris of the Amazon in the 1880’s during the rubber boom, with one of the most beautiful Opera Houses in the world. Today it is a worn down city of over a million people, home to manufacturing everything from soap to Honda’s, brought here by tax incentives to try and provide some economic spark. Our ferry is almost a day behind schedule at this point, and we are packed up and anxious for land. It has been a calm and tranquil passing, very relaxing with chance to catch up on sleep, reading and writing, and to get a sense of the immensity of the Amazon, truly the lungs of the world, slowly, steadily calmly roiling its way to the ocean.

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