Belem to Manaus by Amazon River Boat

A personal account of the experience of taking the Amazon River boat from Belem to Manaus (Brazil). This is a chapter extract from the book Travelantics, by Adonis Stevenson. 

The trip from Belem to Manaus was a six-day journey on a local taxi boat along the Amazon River that stopped off at most of the towns and villages along the way. Manaus is a city in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest and from the coast where we were, a boat was the only way of getting there as there were no roads and a plane journey would have been cheating.

As we were travelling in hammock class, the first thing we all had to do on boarding was find some hanging space. There were almost two hundred people fighting for prime real estate, so it was no time to be polite and British. I found a bit of space and crammed myself in. The locals had a good laugh at our inability to tie the knots of the hammocks correctly, and an even bigger laugh when I tested mine out and came crashing to the floor, arse first. At least it wasn’t head first.

By the time everyone had their hammock up, the spacing seemed a little on the tight side, and that was without anyone in them. That night when they were all full, I was trying to sleep with one person’s feet kicking my knees, someone else’s head inches from my face and a mystery elbow in my back. When some of our group started complaining about the cramped conditions, I made an audacious attempt at getting a laugh by proclaiming we were all in the same boat. It worked, and had me chuckling to myself for the next few days. It wasn’t such a big problem in the end as I found that alcohol provided a simple solution to the crowded sleeping conditions. Everywhere is comfortable when you’re unconscious.

The boat consisted of three decks, the bottom being where we had slung up our hammocks, but it also included some cargo storage, a few shoilets, the engine room, the kitchen and an eating area. The middle deck had a similar layout but without a kitchen and a small area on the bow where people could congregate. The top deck held the more expensive cabins, the bridge, more shoilets, a bar and a deck with plenty of chairs. The front half of the deck was sheltered by a canvas roof, while the back had four open-air showers for cooling down as opposed to washing. This description makes the boat sound a lot bigger than it was, but it can’t have been more than thirty metres long, so with over two hundred people on board, it was jam-packed. This, combined with the fact that the boat had been designed for midgets, meant I was averaging at least one permanent bump on my head for every day on the boat. If you had shaved both my head and a pineapple, you would have had trouble telling them apart.

The only other obvious problem was the shoilet1 hygiene, with the floors often drenched in urine and the walls covered in a kind of green-brown slime. With every day being exceptionally hot and humid, the festering smell of a day’s worth of excrement wasn’t easy to bear. I took my showers quickly and with sandals on.

The first sign of potential trouble came when we spotted some small children in canoes trying to board our boat, with many of them succeeding by throwing a hook onto the boat once their frantic rowing had got them close enough. I was amazed at how well they could row and how efficiently they had climbed onto the boat, which made me think they might be midget pirates. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when they proceeded to sell us fresh prawns and artichoke hearts instead of making us walk the plank.

Three meals a day were included in our ticket, but it took some time to get used to the complex queuing system, which I never fully understood, or at least not enough to attempt to describe it. The only part I figured out was that for some reason, men and women ate at different tables. Breakfast consisted of some bread, something resembling margarine and something not quite resembling coffee. Lunch and dinner compensated for this, as they were usually a top-notch buffet of fried chicken, pasta, rice, beans and potato salad.

At my first lunch, I sat opposite a Goliath of a man who was always smiling, but also probably capable of accidentally knocking down a house if he leaned on it. He also happened to have the slightly squashed head of Dean Cain.2 Towards the end of the meal, I stretched across him to get some juice and he instantly crossed himself. Was leaning over a table bad luck? Had I unknowingly disgraced his family? I froze with fear, which I discovered was my customary reaction to the threat of being thrown off a boat by a not-so-friendly giant. As I awaited my fate, he smiled and left the table. I then realised he had crossed himself because he had just finished his meal. Most Brazilians tend to be fanatical Catholics and therefore cross themselves before and after doing almost everything.

Most of my time was spent on the top deck where many of the locals played dominos, which is a popular game in northern Brazil. From watching a lot of games closely, I deduced that it was as much about the theatre of the event as the actual winning of the game, which was essentially down to chance. The drama comes from many quarters, such as the players forcefully slapping a domino down on the table when they have put down a particularly good one, holding all seven of their dominos lined up in one hand, or spinning their last domino upside down on the table to taunt their opponents. The pinnacle of the performance would be towards the end of a game when the shouting reaching a climax and would conclude with at least one of the three losing players rising to their feet to throw their dominos down in disgust.

Travelling upstream meant we were hugging the edge of the river where the current wasn’t as strong, and were therefore close to the scenery on one side. It also gave a good indication of how wide the Amazon was, because at times the other side was too far away to be seen.

On the near side, we got good views of the lush jungle and every now and again, there would be an indigenous settlement consisting of a few wooden houses on stilts. The people living there would often be fishing in their canoes and would usually wave at us. In general they were sociable and even the naked couple riding around on horses were keen to give us a wave and follow the boat for a while. They seemed to be playing to their audience as they frolicked on the embankment, then with a friendly smile and a wave they were gone.

By dusk, a day of relaxing, eating and drinking was enough to put me in the right mood to enjoy the best views of the day. Every evening, as the sunset was painting the sky a peachy orange to the west, there would also be an imposing thunderstorm in the east, intermittently lighting up the sky with crisp lightning bolts that mirrored the colour of the sun. It was an eerie but breathtaking sight.

The most frustrating part of the day would normally come at bedtime, when the cramped hammock conditions were compounded by the night stops. There was always something that needed to be loaded or unloaded and with my hammock being inches from the loading-bay, sleeping wasn’t easy. The most puzzling part of it all was how desperate the towns of the Amazon were for sacks filled with nuts, bolts and glass.3

By the second day, the guy working downstairs in the kitchen had become my crew buddy. We never spoke due to the constant engine noise down there, so all our communication was accomplished through sign language. The main benefit of this friendship, apart from the mime training, was that he would always come to find me just before the mealtime bell so I could get a head start on everyone else. He would do this by giving me the food mime, which was the odd motion of flicking his hand up and down in front of his mouth. Some of our miming got fairly advanced, and as we never spoke once during my time on the boat, he may not have even known that I wasn’t Brazilian.

The other friend I made on the boat was Ramon, an energetic six-year-old boy who had a permanent smile on his face. We met when I tried to join in on a game that only he knew the rules to, which involved using your forefinger and middle finger to simulate the legs of people engaged in combat. Unsurprisingly he won every time which spurred on his violent tendencies, and he followed it up with an hour of demonstrating how to kill the little finger people in a myriad of gruesome ways. There were lethal collisions, shootings, crashing planes, explosions and many more, but the coup de grâce was when he mimed shooting himself in the head followed by using his other hand to simulate the brain debris coming out of the other side. Pretty brutal stuff for a six-year-old, but for some reason it was so hilarious that I was almost in tears from laughing so hard. I felt there had to be some kind of cultural reciprocation so I introduced him to my mp3 player, which I explained ran on witchcraft and bad mojo. He seemed to enjoy the Foo Fighters and the joys of air guitar.

I adore fresh seafood, so by my third day in the boat, I was eager to find out what the Amazon had to offer. During one of the stops, a woman had got on the boat and was selling a tin foil canister of food which she said was fish, so I bought it instantly. The fish was of a species I didn’t recognise, but it was about a foot long and its meat was succulently sweet. It was also grilled to perfection with a splash of lemon juice, served with some vinegary salad, rice and noodles. It was one of the nicest meals I have ever eaten. It wasn’t extravagant in any way, just first-rate home-cooked food, eaten on a sunny day, on the Amazon River, overlooking a tropical rainforest, with the occasional pink river dolphin leaping out of the water to salute my choice.

On the fourth day I woke up early enough to experience the morning mist, which became even spookier when we sailed past an abandoned and partially collapsed colonial church. It had almost been swallowed up by the surrounding jungle which somehow made it look sinister yet uniquely beautiful.

When we docked in Santerem later that morning, we would be staying until lunchtime, so I decided to go for a walk in town. As I left the port, I walked past three vultures eating a dead dog, which even for Latin America was a little out of the ordinary. Despite being only a couple of metres from me, they didn’t flinch. One of them even turned around to glare at me with disdain, which is not easy to pull off when you have a piece of dog meat hanging from your beak.

Before I could even contemplate that strangeness, I came across three horses, with no obvious human owner, trying to cross a busy road. The two little ones went first, stopping expertly at the central reservation to wait for some cars to go past before going across all the way. Then the big one followed by running across in one attempt, missing two cars by inches. It clearly knew what it was doing, but it occurred to me that it might have misunderstood the meaning of a zebra crossing.

I’m sure if it had been a dream, some kind of shaman would have told me these were important signals from my subconscious. The vultures eating the dog would probably have been a sign that I feared my mortality, while the horses crossing the road would undoubtedly have been signifying my internal struggle to cross over to a more spiritual way of life. What I saw, however, was very real, so I’m not sure what it meant.

In comparison, the town itself was unremarkable. It contained a quaint fish market and of course plenty of churches, but sadly no mystical messages.

On the fifth day, I woke up to find some heavily-armed military policemen wandering around the boat, but didn’t think much of it as I had got used to seeing people in uniforms carrying guns. When I climbed to the top deck to read my book, I noticed a rope had been tied up to all the chairs, so I moved it out of the way and sat down. I felt something was out of place, but chose to ignore it and continue with my reading. After half an hour of reading, when the tension hanging in the air was too hard to ignore, even for an Englishman, I looked up and saw three of the Military Policemen (MPs) sitting opposite me stroking their automatic rifles. This wasn’t as disconcerting as the big guy wearing shorts and flip-flops and fiddling with his large gun. After a few moments of panic, I figured out that he was one of the MPs but in plain clothes, or at least a friend of theirs from his jovial behaviour with them. There was only one thing for it - I initiated the well-practiced mental exercise of ignoring it as just another one of those crazy Latin American practices.

I couldn’t concentrate though as there was still something strange in the air and it wasn’t just that I was sitting downwind from the toilet. I looked across to my right to see eight men dressed only in shorts and handcuffed to the deckchairs that had been tied up by the rope I had moved earlier. Everything then fell into place. The MPs were escorting prisoners on our boat which was why everyone on the deck was a bit subdued. The size and quantity of guns on show implied they weren’t just petty thieves, so it was more than bizarre that they were being ferried to their next destination on a passenger boat. After a few seconds of deliberating, I decided to change seats to one on the other side of the deck. I’m not sure if I made the move look as nonchalant as I was attempting, but the important thing was that I was away from the mass murderers.

As the day wore on, the situation started to seem more and more normal, so after checking it was ok with the MPs, I gave some nuts to the prisoners who seemed in reasonable spirits considering their situation. My reasoning was that if there was some kind of prison break, they might spare my life after my act of great kindness.

We also got friendly with a few of the guards, who were surprisingly affable, despite the intimidating manner in which they were toting their weapons. Later in the afternoon the guards changed into their civvies and provided me with one of the most peculiarly unique sights of my life. A bunch of guys in shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops and automatic rifles guarding another bunch of guys dressed only in shorts and handcuffed to some deckchairs

By the evening, only one of the MPs was doing any guarding while the rest were sharing beers with us whilst playing Twister, just in case the situation wasn’t surreal enough already. Eventually they even let us hold their loaded guns and pose for photos. Latin America - what a place!

By the final day on the boat, I had completely changed my mind about the friendliness of Brazilians. They were chatty and helpful towards us first-timers who didn’t understand a lot of the boat rules. They still had no comprehension of personal space, or that their not-so-discrete discussions next to your hammock at 3am could be annoying, but it’s the same all over the continent, and you can’t pick and choose the bits you like. Essentially, they were good-natured, friendly people who just happened to play their music at an ear splitting level.

One thing I was told before going to Brazil was how they all loved music and that people were always dancing to some kind of rhythm. I found this to be true up to a point, but with the small addendum that Brazilians will dance to anything, from crap Latin Pop to even crapper Latin Techno. I suppose it didn’t help that they insisted on playing it at a volume where the speakers distorted so much that you couldn’t make anything out.

On our final evening on the boat, as the whole top deck was dancing away to white noise, Steve befriended a group of kids and played with them all night long, picking them up, throwing them around and chasing them all over the top deck. Normally when an adult is in such a situation, they will get bored at some point and leave the kids to it, but with Steve, this was never going to be the case. He was thriving on finding someone of his own mental capacity to play with, and for the first time in my life, I witnessed the children getting tired of playing before the adult. All the kids were fast asleep by the time we docked in Manaus and all that was left to do was bid our farewells to the friends we had made on the boat.

Above is a chapter from the book Travelantics, by Adonis Stevenson, which you can buy online.

For readers information, the Amazon river boat continues travelling upriver to Tabatinga (Brazil) and Leticia (Colombia), as far as Iquitos (Peru) [Ed].

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