Brazil – Amazon River Run


After hurriedly buying as many supplies as we thought we needed for the four nights and five days down the Amazon river from Manaus to Belém, Lexie and I boarded the Onze de Mayo, or 11th of May, without much hassle. There was a brief skirmish as to hammock location, and I ended up being not in the inner rows of hammocks away from and perpendicular to the side of the boat, but hanging parallel to and about two feet away from the edge of the boat. In my hammock, when the boat rocked, I swung out, and my outer arm would just make it past the railing, over the water. This would prove to be less than ideal. The other problem with the boat is that whoever designed it probably never anticipated that anyone over about 5 foot 10 would ever need to inhabit it. On the first day alone, I hit my head 7 times on things ranging in hardness from a plastic light fixture to the metal hammock bar. By the end of the trip, one light fixture in particular seemed to be damaged beyond repair, and the top of my head was quite sore, which would also prove to be inconvenient. Although it was fairly warm on the river by day, enough so that I got a bit of a tan, bordering on a sunburn the second day, the nights got cold, mostly because it got windy as hell. Not having a blanket, I ended up sleeping hardly at all the first night, and so was not as perturbed by our 6am awakening by whistle-blowing half-wit as I would have been if I slept. The food was mediocre at best, as I was happy when there were both rice and beans, and decided to stay away from the meat after the first night, but the scenery was breathtaking.

Whoever told me that I could get by speaking either English or Spanish in Brazil was clearly smoking crack. English gets mostly blank looks, and with Spanish, though sometimes people will understand what I am saying, when they speak back to me in Portuguese, I am at a complete loss. This has improved slightly in the last week or so, but only slightly. I was awakened on the second night by a Brazilian grandmother whacking me on the top of the head repeatedly exactly where I kept hitting it on overhanging bits of the boat, and pointing out at the river. Actually, I had just fallen asleep, and woken up when I noticed that I was getting fairly wet. She intimated through what seemed to be angry points and gestures that either I was to hurl myself over the edge of the boat, or to untie and pull down the blue plastic tarp that would at least partly shield us from the elements. After I had done so (the latter, not the former), they took pity on me, and invited me into their little hammock wagon circle, where I was much warmer and drier, but could not actually move. Without moving, I was in contact with Lexie on one side, the grandmother on the other side, and her grandson on top of me, literally. Still, this being greatly preferable (for me, anyway) to not being able to sleep at all, and not having slept at all the night before, I was enough asleep to have murderous thoughts when aforementioned half-wit began his maniacal whistle blowing at sun up. You would think they would give people the option of whether to get up or not, if all they are serving is coffee and a piece of bread. Not so.

I am not sure what the Navy is like, but the boat made me wonder a couple of times. First, is it common on ships to have the shower head directly above the toilet? Most bathrooms in Brazil that I have seen have the shower and the toilet in close proximity, but on this boat, the shower water actually fell into the toilet if the seat was up (or, later, broken off and on the floor). It had the benefit of keeping the toilet fairly clean, but you had to almost straddle it to wash yourself. And I am pretty sure that the shower water came straight from the river, as it was brown. Second, is the Navy in the practice of recycling ships after they have sunk? Cause the 11 de Mayo did, in 1988 or so, killing 50 people, most of whom I believe were in port at the time. Exactly how this happened, I do not know. The question I didn’t get answered, however, was if this made it sinking again more or less likely. Also, the people in charge of running the boat were somewhat less concerned with professionalism than would be, say, a loan shark. The had the attitude at the bar that if change was not easily available, you would just have to go without. Try to buy your soda or sandwich somewhere else. Which there wasn’t. It wasn’t until the third night that I realized where all the change that they got from people buying things was going. Every night, the crew would have an impromptu gambling party, and the card players needed to break whatever bills they had to play with. So, since this happened every night, and they never put their earnings back into bigger bills since they would be playing again later, whatever change people had spent during the day was all they had. We didn’t end up buying very much.

All in all, the boat trip was something I was glad to have done, but not particularly eager to do again. Every single sunset was epic, and the river ranged from very wide to, “Dude, seriously, I can’t see the other side, are you sure we are not in the ocean yet?” We were boarded a few times by miniature pirates, children who lived in various hut-type-abodes on the sides of the river, who would paddle their way out into the current, then snag one of the tires hanging from the edge of the boat with 6 foot metal hooks, then hold on for dear life as the speed they were traveling immediately was multiplied by at least 10 to match ours. They would then tie on with rope, and climb up into the boat with various fruits, vegetables, and other things to eat. Some of these were delicious. Some were decidedly not so. Other kids would paddle their way out into the river when the boat would pass because people threw things from the boat to them, usually food wrapped to some extent in a plastic bag. They all looked somewhat feral, wearing minimal rags and having impressive balance. So, you threw or bought something when you could. It rained every night, and was sunny every day, and I got used to sleeping in a hammock somewhat. We met people that I ran into again in Belem and Sao Luis, and on the last night, Lexie and I bid adieu for the first time, as she got off the boat early to try to find a roving technoboat that she had heard of, that apparently was a mobile trance party, taking ravers around the rivers of the world. No, seriously, I think it turned out to be some sort of social project that brought technology and possibly medical access to people who lived in very remote areas, and had a satellite dish that connected its computer to the rest of the world. So, it turns out that going along the northern coast of Brazil is something that a lot of people do, and so I would run into Lexie as well as the two couples I met on the boat separately a few more times, but I had gotten to a part of a place that my guidebook did not cover, and was more or less on my own for basically the first time since I had started, in a country where I did not speak the language. I was aching for a bed, a real shower, and some beach time. So, when I got to Belém at the end of the river, it seemed that the trip was going to get more interesting…

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