Thursday, September 2
The tinted windows of the bus continually rattled throughout the night but I felt quite a relief after leaving Venezuela. My thoughts wandered back to what Simon noticed about the families on the buses there. The young children were really well behaved on such long journeys and they were so attentive and expressive. I hoped they would become the happy and friendly people their parents seemed to be, despite the uncertain times they were living in. The people on the bus to Manaus were also really happy and pleasant. A young girl in the seat in front of me kept popping her head up and then hiding. She would start laughing when I just missed her. Later in the evening there was a patrol stop and the police guard took my passport away for about 10 minutes. He returned it to me with a big smile and best wishes. We were down past the Equator and I nodded off as the sun rose over the swamps and jungle. It was already an incredible 36 Celsius at 8am. Apart from the aggressive, tailgating taxi driver who took me to the Hotel Ideal in Manaus, Brazil already appeared to have less of a machismo character. The hotel was ideally located in Zona Franca, close to the port terminal on the Rio Negro. It cost 48 R$ for a single room with air conditioning. Even the floor and walls felt too hot to the touch in my end room. Again, like on my arrival in Venezuela, I decided on a breakfast and cash withdrawal and again, I floundered. The only respite the various banks offered was a cool escape from the stifling heat outdoors. The machines just wouldn’t accept my card though. In one bank I spoke to a foreign exchange clerk who attempted a draft transaction through the clearing bank but my request was refused. At least this time I kept things in perspective. There was an anxious looking lad in front of me. He had managed to escape Haiti’s post-earthquake ruins to try and start a new life. I had no alternative but to buy a phone card and call Barclays. This time I got through to Silva in Mumbai. He immediately gathered there was a block on my card because, apart from Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, there weren’t any flags and permissions for me to use it in other South American countries. He rectified the matter and cleared my card for use. My brief spell of agitation ceased and, after lunch, I managed to withdraw a further 400 R$. I made my way back through the crowded streets lined with market stalls to the Porto Flutante where I enquired about Amazon riverboat cruises to Belem on the Atlantic Coast. There was one leaving the following day. I checked the details and bought a ticket. I was so dopey after three nights without a proper bed. In the late afternoon I bought the essential hammock at Casa das Redes and took some snacks back to my room. After sorting out and offloading some of my stuff, including the heavy and cumbersome boots, I finally chilled out in the cooling room. The door remained shut to keep the hot air out!
Friday, September 3
I fell into a long, deep sleep. From 5am I lightly snoozed after switching off the noisy air conditioning. After sleeping on it, I considered the basic plan for the rest of my journey and decided to leave out Bolivia. Taking the route from Brazil, through Paraguay, to Bolivia and back down through Northern Argentina would hardly leave me enough time to rest. I’d started taking my Malarone pills when I left Ciudad Bolivar. There were no mosquitoes bothering me yet but I also had the repellent just in case. After a breakfast of fruit, coffee and bread I collected my laundry and bought some bottled water and batteries. I was quite refreshed and rather excited about the day ahead. I imagined a delirious, live link commentary as I walked the half kilometre down to the port. The N/M Cisne Branco (White Swan) was there bobbing up and down in anticipation. I boarded at 11, crossing the ramp onto the middle deck where I registered my name and presented my ticket. The sailing would last four days and all food, apart from breakfast, had an additional charge. That explained the rather cheap 200 R$ ticket. One of the officious looking crew took my red and white cotton hammock and tied it up to the poles for me. I prepared for a whole new dimension to my travels. The boat quickly filled up with passengers. Dock workers loaded the lower deck with a cargo of bottled beer. The big boat, or small ship, left port and turned back a few hundred metres along the northern shore of Manaus and we waited a further three hours to set sail east down into the River Amazon. More passengers and cargo came on board. Three blasts of the ship’s horns signalled its imminent departure. The middle deck hammocks were all a tangle and an eager noise increased. I briefly jumped out on to the concrete jetty to buy some more water and snacks then hopped back on board and climbed up to the top deck where the bar was being stocked with crates of Skol beer. There were a few other travellers hovering about. I got talking to Tiago and Helena from Boston, Massachusetts. They were on a three month trip around this huge country. Tiago had family in Brazil and knew a considerable amount about the country and enthused about its size, resources and colour. Fabrizio, from Basle, Switzerland, joined us and we had a few beers. It was a hot day and I stayed on the top deck taking in the dripping sun and admiring the wide river as evening approached. They were a lively bunch on the top deck and seemed friendly and gregarious. I had to keep my wits about me and remained careful despite drinking quite a few beers. I carried my rucksack and papers on me. I spotted a shoal of porpoises swimming close to our craft as the sun went down but, apart from that, the murky expanse offered little other wildlife to admire. There was plenty of life on the top deck as the music continued, the drinks flowed and people began dancing. The dinner orders were being taken by the bar staff. I enjoyed a ham and cheese toastie and got talking to Jordan, one of a group of guys from Vancouver. After a couple more cans of Skol I returned to the middle deck and squeezed into my hammock for a long rest amidst the heavy engine noise of the boat and the loud laughter and foot stamping from the dancers upstairs. I slept on and off in a cramped space. There were people in hammocks above and below me. It was certainly an experience.
Saturday, September 4
My little blue book of diary notes was full so I continued writing in my new notepad as we sailed further down the wide River Amazon. Clumps of twigs, grass and reeds plus other floating debris often appeared on the surface. The mid-channel passage afforded distant views of the wooded riverbank. Both the top and middle decks had chest high, narrow railings. Food was conveniently served on pull-out tables behind my hammock. Sweet coffee and bread were served for breakfast. My backpack and guitar were secured to a pillar beside my hammock. There was little room to move around on the middle deck until a few of the passengers disembarked on stops further down river. The boat docked at Porto de Parintins as the morning heated up into a steamy day with strong sunshine giving a silver like reflection to the river. Vendors boarded the boat to sell refreshments. A couple of the regular drinkers on the top deck went ashore to stock up on rum and were caught out when we left the port without them, but a locally-piloted speedboat brought them out to the middle channel and they clambered back on board to lots of cheers. There was a merry atmosphere. The music was fine but sometimes a little too loud. A guy was calling someone on his mobile phone as he stood right next to a pounding speaker. People continued dancing into the dusky hour and beyond. It was Saturday night. I remembered to order dinner and I sat down to eat stewed beef, rice, pasta and chicken. I also drank the water from the cooler as I’d remembered the disinfecting tablets that were given to me in Lima. Whilst reading Wild Swans during the evening I got talking to Alessandra and her mother who were in the hammocks beside and below me. They were reading a magazine featuring a veteran Brazilian pop star. He was very famous they said. ‘Like The Beatles?’ I asked. ‘Ah, si,’ exclaimed Alessandra, as she reeled off the names of the Fab Four! There was quite a language barrier due to my lack of Portuguese, but we managed even though Alessandra and her mum spoke no English. My limited Spanish helped though. I was picking up obrigado or obrigada (feminine and masculine for ‘thanks’) and disculpe (sorry), and some other words were actually quite similar to Spanish. I continued reading but lots of sun and lack of sleep affected my concentration. Alessandra and her mother disembarked at Santarem, where they’d lived all of their lives. We embraced and the mother said I was a good one! She winked and chuckled as Alessandra flashed a gorgeous smile. I spoke to Tiago from Boston again. He and Helena had tickets just for Santarem but time was of an essence for them and reaching Belem, he reckoned, would make access to transport easier. I helped convince them both to stay on board. There was far more space once the Santarem-bound passengers disembarked. The boat was moored up as the crew and top deck party people headed onshore for a night out on the town.
Sunday, September 5
I enjoyed my best ever sleep in a hammock! As dawn broke soon after 5.30am there was still plenty of activity on and off the boat. Coffee and bread were served up as a large cargo of bottled beer was manually transferred onto the small dockside. It was a scorching hot day, almost identical to Saturday. Groups huddled around the bar drinking from dawn till dusk as the forro music was played at a more tolerable volume. After a lunchtime stop further down river, a pigeon flew on board and stayed underneath the rescue equipment and life rafts until the next stop! Before dinner there was a huge commotion as an alligator suddenly popped its head out of the choppy waters beside the boat. As suddenly as it surfaced, and briefly stayed there in a motionless state, the large reptile just vanished. I had a thick meat and vegetable soup for dinner. Tiago and Helena continued to stay on board, but were looking rather sheepish. I continued reading Wild Swans, a very powerful and true story. The heartbreaking and painful recollections of life during China’s Cultural Revolution were harrowing. The river narrowed and the surrounding jungle came into closer view with many passengers climbing up the steps to the top deck to admire a stunning sunset. There were even less hammocks following an early evening port of call where riverside workers busily loaded the bottom deck with melons and coconuts. I checked out my remaining time in South America. I was almost certain to give Bolivia a miss. I would simplify the final few weeks and head for Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu, possibly Montevideo, Uruguay, and definitely return to Buenos Aires. Yes, I thought it to be for the best, because it could have been another five or six days before I arrived in Rio. With 20 days left and several days there I’d be playing with a fortnight, so it was Iguazu and then back into Argentina. With that resolved, I reclined into my hammock and messed about with some lyrics for a possible song, We’re going back to Bolivia. There’s a mountain to climb, so do it justice. Salt flats to visit, a death road to ride….. a sample to slide….. I stayed so long in Cusco Town……..and played a song, and wrote it down.
Monday, September 6
The days just seemed to blend together. There was little else to do but take some sun on the top deck, drink some Fanta grape juice, read Wild Swans and occasionally chat. I got into an engaging conversation with Marco from Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, an amiable character. We chatted in Spanish. He had a folksy manner about him. Life was for living, said Marco, and he was certainly winning. With an eager eye for the women Marco was certainly quick to join them underneath the top deck showers at the stern end! Jordan from Vancouver joined me for a while. I asked him about his travels. He was journeying through Brazil with his friends. He missed home and loved Canada’s wilderness. He recognised nature’s dangers, whether on the Amazon, or, in the Canadian wilds where a friend of his brother’s had been camping and was mauled to death by a cougar. After travelling, Jordan wanted to break into the world of work with a possible moneymaking stint in the Alberta oil/tar sands. It was a contentious, environmental issue but I decided not to press him on it. My stomach started to hurt again and I mentioned I’d been drinking the coolant water. Jordan kept well clear of it and vouched for bottled water and vitamin pills to take him through the four days to Belem. There were some fine tunes blaring out on the top deck. One song had a particularly euphoric movement to it. By late afternoon the boat reached a much narrower stretch of river where mothers and children rowed their boats out from their shoreline shanties to wave and call for clothing. Many sealed bags were thrown over to them in a ritualistic gesture of giving. I’d never seen so many happy, smiling faces all at once. They reflected a wondrous, sunset scene. An incredible storm brewed up after dark with horizontal lightning and violent overhead thunder cracks shaking our craft. The side tarpaulins were pulled down and the lights remained on all night. Before resting, I took my first shower of the voyage but the cubicles were all a bit too slimy.
Tuesday, September 7
The toilets were a stinking mess which I couldn’t avoid as I struggled with an increasingly upset stomach. I probably wasn’t alone. Another of the Vancouver lads, called Mark, started chatting. Like his friends, he’d just graduated and was celebrating with a travelling adventure. He was reading David McNally’s Another World is Possible – Globalization and Anti-Capitalism. Post-graduate clarity often reveals what a mess the world finds itself in but can optimistically highlight ways of making a difference. The Rio Amazonia opened out as a group of us stood looking ahead from the bow on the middle deck. The dramatic, skyscraper skyline of Belem appeared on the eastern horizon. Despite my stomach, I felt elated to have reached the Atlantic Coast, all the way from Merida in just eight days! We docked and it was all so hot. The crew checked our tickets. Tiago and Helena managed to get away without any hassle and, with the Vancouver boys, we all shared taxis into the town. I shared a taxi with Jordan and Matt. They asked me about my guitar and what music I liked and played. With them being Canadian, I mentioned Neil Young. Jordan’s eyes lit up. Down by the River was his favourite Neil Young song. The Amazonia Hostel was full but the receptionist directed us three blocks to Hotel Fortaleza. There were rooms available and I took a single. Despite acute tiredness I remained alert enough, especially after a lovely cool shower. I checked out the travel options with the hostess. She reckoned bus prices to Rio weren’t that much less than flying, but I wasn’t so keen about the £114 quoted price and I wanted to see the land and its people and places. I took a city bus from Avenida President Vargas to the main station three kilometres east of the centre. Urban buses were thin on the ground and the streets were largely deserted. It was Brazil’s Independence Day but the station remained open. An English speaking guy behind the counter was so helpful. TransBrazilian had Rio-bound buses leaving Belem twice a day. The next one was at 3pm on the following day. I paid 190 R$ (£65) for a special offer ticket. I then bought some snacks, including a large pro-biotic Danone Actimel yogurt, from the big supermarket opposite the station. My stomach remained unsettled and I took a bus back to the hotel, in the Comercio district. On the urban buses in Belem conductors sat in high chairs taking ticket payments and letting passengers know where to stop. Back in the hotel I suddenly developed severe bath ear. I sounded so full of cold and talked in a rather strange voice as Helena laughingly remarked when we chatted in the foyer. She recommended a nearby food bar, one of the few places open, but I first found a pharmacy to check out some medication for my belly ache. I was also experiencing floating boat syndrome and felt like I was bobbing up and down! So, I went to bed very early, in preparation for a 50-hour bus journey down to Rio.