My trip down the Amazon, from Tri-Frontiera between Colombia, Peru and Brazil had a thrilling start, as these adventures go.
A Colombian border town Leticia is conjoined with a Brazilian border town Tabatinga, on one side, and a Peruvian town of Santa Rosa de Yavari across the river. It’s a free zone and can be traversed easily without formalities.
Both border towns are humid, muddy, dilapidated, and lacking appeal, apart from the exotic location itself, in the midst of a lush rainforest that otherwise does not distinguish between geo-political boundaries.
My persuasion and negotiating skills were put to a test again (Brazilian embassy in Bogota was the first, successful, stunt) as I tried to pry a boat ticket to Manaus. They couldn’t be booked in advance, so I assumed that it wouldn’t be a problem getting a ticket in situ.
And, normally, perhaps it wouldn’t.
But I, along with a handful of other travellers, dropped in the midst of a mass migration. Haitian emigres were on a tight deadline to get permits in Brazil, after having been detained for weeks in Tabatinga. After having their work visas processed, they rushed to clear the entry and get further into the country via the Amazon.
They were told that there are jobs in Brazil, such as for the upcoming Fifa World Cup in 2014, with Manaus one of the official host cities.
Their smiles were genuine, their eyes illuminated with hope. Knowing well that they are heading into an exhaustive struggle, they still managed to be high-spirited.
After long and repetitive negotiations which took on a pleading tone in all the Romanic languages mangled in my mind, I was issued a ticket. I was later told, “filha, o que muita sorte” – what luck.
The boat was, indeed, packed to capacity, and ‘personal space’ acquired a new meaning. The only personal space is a cocoon of a slouching hammock, and even then one could not escape being pushed or swayed whenever someone passed by.
There were roughly 500 Haitian men and women, ranging between 28 & 35 years old – couples, spouses or friends. Some of them left their young children back home in the care of their parents, relatives or remaining friends. Some spoke quite good Spanish and conversational Portuguese, along with their native French (French/Creole), and even English. They were at the beginning of a long, gruelling and questionable quest, but their smiles and hope were so genuine and bighearted.
There’s an ever-present feeling like a pulsing adrenaline thinking about traversing this great natural wonder.
That said, the journey itself is not toe-curlingly exciting. Along this vast distance there are a few variations – mainly the width of the river, its meandering course, its confluences, the wetlands shoreward, cliffs in certain segments, floating islands (chunks of land that have collapsed into the water, with entire trees uprooted), small communities, farms, some clear-cutting, small cattle herds, minuscule ports, isolated fishermen, and other passenger and cargo boats in passing: serene, steady surroundings.
The storms can be seen forthcoming hours ahead, like impenetrable curtains of rain, which can either pass quickly or engulf the boat for hours (or an entire day of uninterrupted showers).
When it is sunny, the sun is intense, with nothing to shield it.
Thus, it is life on the boat that becomes the focus. But just like the landscape, the activities don’t deviate much either.
Swinging in the hammock, dosing off, daydreaming, reading, informing, listening to the music, talking to people hanging next to you (above you/ below you), playing cards, dominoes, or drinking and dancing on the top deck.
Soon, however, given the diversity on the boat, everyone rendered themselves useful.
The Brazilian kids were recruited to teach us foreigners Portuguese. They took it very seriously and came back to quiz us later on. The French travellers translated interviews with the Haitians. The Prof entertained the kids with a slideshow of photographs of animals and various destinations.
The (free) meals on board made me think of old communist cafeterias. Caught up in the fury trying to get on board at departure from Tabatinga I did not have time to get much beside a bunch of bananas. I was also hoping, in vain, that I would be able to buy some fresh fruit or veggies at various ports.
It made me wonder how the people living in these little communities along the river sustain themselves; it looked as if they didn’t have enough for consumption, let alone sale.
What they did sell almost at every port were huge bunches of platanos (which cannot be eaten raw), and two other vegetables, one of which was pupunha.
It’s a small orange plant which looks like a pepper from the outside, but the taste is actually similar to a cross between a cooked sweet potato and a pumpkin (though more fibruous), and it is quite palatable.
Grinded into a paste with some olive oil it can make a fine (survival) meal.
Upon reaching terra firma we were on abacaxi (pineapple) and açaí (a native Amazon berry) smoothies like a vain infusion.
Sitting at an attractive Praca Sao Sebastao in the centre of Manaus, next to an elaborate old opera house Teatro Amazonas, hooked onto free public wi-fi, I keep forgetting I’m in the middle of the jungle.
Manaus is a city of 2 million: it’s big, humid, and not particularly charming. There is a massive Petrobras refinery next to an immense shipbuilding yard and a cargo/passenger port. The river here is so wide, it resembles a lake.
Apparently, jungle trips can be arranged from there inland, for a peek into some indigenous tribes and the wildlife, and a lot of people arrive to Manaus for that purpose. I was wondering how authentic that may be, stemming from this place.
More a fan of independent exploration, and sensing that I won’t find the wild tribes here, I hopped on a boat heading to Belem.
I still couldn’t help but think of my Haitian companions whose journey into Brazil gets even tougher once – or if – they get work permits and try to land a paying job, a decent lodging, and somehow also try to provide for a family back home. I may have learned just then that the hardness in their eyes, that determination, can also mean optimism.