In the sweaty mid-afternoon tropical heat I board. Hammocks are strung up; side by side, above and below. This will be home for the next three days and nights as the wooden vessel wends its way upstream on the Amazon River from steamy Belem, just below the equator in the northeast of Brazil, to Santarem, a lower Amazonian city in the interior of the country. Dusk arrives and finally we are off, chugging out of port into the muddy, wide expanse. On the boat’s upper level the bar opens, cerveja (beer) flows freely and forró (Northeastern Brazilian Folk music) pumps out. I begin to meet a few of my fellow travelers, an eclectic mix of Brazilians sprinkled with a few other curious foreigners. After a few hours chatting ( my Portuguese, or better said, my portuñol- mix of Spanish and Portuguese, levels up a notch or two) it is time to retire downstairs to the cramped conglomeration of crisscrossed hammocks in search of some tropical slumber.
Whistles are blown shortly after 6am to signal the serving of a simple breakfast of sweeter than sweet coffee and bread (no butter, no conserves). As it is the only meal of the day that is included in the ticket price almost everybody is up. As I drink my coffee, still in an early morning foggy daze, a floating stockyard transporting at least one hundred head of cattle drifts by, presumably on its way to market. With limited road networks in the north of Brazil the elaborate river systems serve as the principal transit routes.
The dawning of a new day begins to reveal the ways of life on the water. The thick jungle vegetation is intermittently cleared on the banks to allow for basic wooden hut dwellings. Several canoes, many occupied by unbelievably young children, come out to meet our boat in the hope that a passenger aboard will throw out a plastic bag of clothes, a common practice and an extremely welcome one for these isolated families where acquiring clothes at the local store is simply not an option.
Around mid morning we make a scheduled stop in the river port town of Belves. A myriad of vendors board, all eager to sell a variety of goods including a vast array of tropical juices in plastic bags, newspapers and most popularly, dried river prawns. As the boat continues on its way it is time to get back to the on board activities to help pass the lingering hours. While some prefer to while away the hours gently swaying, dozing, chatting or reading, in their hammocks, others – namely rowdy Brazilian men – partake in vigorous and competitive games of dominoes, a popular pastime in the north of Brazil. Curious children explore every nook and cranny of the vessel, running and smiling, content in their new environs.
In the late afternoon we reach the long awaited Amazon River proper and the tributary on which we are travelling opens up into the ocean-like expanse of the world’s most voluminous river (The Nile is longer but the Amazon holds more water). Shortly after we are treated to the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed. Bright pink, red and orange tinges paint the sky around the sinking sun, set off magnificently against the fluffiness of white clouds and remnant blue streaks of the divine day.
Later, dinner is served. Humongous portions of hearty Brazilian fare of chicken, rice, spaghetti, feijao (black beans) and salad ($R8- Approximately $5USD) impossibly heaped onto the plate ensure that those eating don’t go hungry. Later I make my way up to the less crowded upper deck in hope of a much better night’s sleep and content in having been made privy to some of the ways of the river in this unique part of the world. As I am just starting to drift off a new friend rouses me to advise that we need to move our hammocks from their vulnerable position to avoid being drenched by an imminent tropical storm. Groggily, I do this before sliding off once more into the dreamworld.
After the hoped for better night’s sleep I feel well prepared to tackle another strenuous day gliding along the Amazon. It is clear that a certain camaraderie has developed among many of the passengers. Living in such close quarters has no doubt bonded many of us. Maybe it is because we are “all in the same boat”, a cliché that has been bandied about a few too many times by some on board. The increased familiarity is evident through nods, smiles and persistent requests from children to buy them a soft drink to alleviate their exaggeratedly feigned heatstroke. To ameliorate my own condition a refreshingly cool shower in the open air of the top deck with water pumped from the river below us proves to be just the tonic I need. Refreshed I settle back in my hammock to watch the slide show of life on the river play out.
The simplicity of life here, far removed from the hectic nature of city life is on display; a little girl helps her mother wash clothes in the river from the modest deck of their humble abode, children splash in the shallows waving wildly at us, families lazing lethargically together under the intense sun. Life here is a different life, undoubtedly with its fair share of challenges and hardships but, judging by the faces of the locals that we see as we briefly inhabit their slice of this sphere, it is a life that is embraced and lived with joyous spirit and vigour.
Night falls, the last night on board before the scheduled arrival at Santarem early the next morning. Good spirits are further heightened when we make another cargo stop late at night and are able to disembark to explore the busy streets of a small port town on a Friday night. It feels great to be on land and to be able to share some food and drink with cheerful local folk. Back on board it is back to the hammock for the last night of swaying sleep.
Not long after sunrise we arrive at Santarem and it is time to continue on. For me it will be to the Amazon River beach town of Alter do Chão to try and get over what I feel may well be a harsh case of post-boat blues. Fellow passengers, now new friends are farewelled. Amazon River travel of this kind is not luxurious, it is not for those who are not willing to share their immediate personal space with all and sundry but those who revel in intrepidness and travel by boat on the Amazon and its tributaries will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience. A true highlight in a grand continent.