The Hammock that Did Not Sway
June 30, 2008
There is this dream I had for a long time – to sail up the Amazon and then go into the jungle, living off what I could find there. And so after meandering my way up the coast from Rio, stopping in various places, I arrived in Belem and found a boat that was heading upriver to Manaus.
It took a few tries and most of the morning before I finally located just where to buy the ticket from but it is done. I bought a ticket for the five day journey starting tomorrow and set off to buy a hammock at the market. This is how one travels on these boats, I was told. I can’t wait to begin!
The market in Belem is the usual chaotic sprawl with all manner of goods being bought and sold. There are large mounds of rice, flour, and other dry goods. The virulent smell of dried fish comes from one area where are rows of heaped baskets ranging from squid and shrimp to huge fish that I have no names for.
Yet another section sells fresh fish – I have never seen ones this large or with such varied and beautiful patterns. There are live crabs where the owner dips in his hand fearlessly into the bucket to pull out prime specimens to tempt buyers. There are live fish as well swimming in tanks too small for them.
There are vendors with carts selling vegetables and fruits. Seeing me eyeing the fruits, one woman laughed. “Go on try them, you won’t be able to stop at just one. Guaranteed” she said. She was right.
There are areas for non-food items as well. There are handmade mats, fans, utensils and baskets made of palm and bamboo and wood. All are handmade but these are not the sort sold at exclusive boutiques but just normal everyday items that people buy at the local market. There are piles of clothes, next to piles of shoes, next to soap, safety pins and pots and pans.
There are eateries as well, the noon rush is over and I find the place more or less empty. It is time for a siesta for some and for some a time to make merry.
This is Brazil, where they know how to take the time to enjoy life and a party begins at the drop of a hat, sometimes even less than that. A couple of lines of a songs hummed under the breath by someone quickly prompts another to start tapping on the table or a tin or to pull out an instrument. Before you know it, there is an impromptu party with passersby joining in. The dancing doesn’t take long to commence.
I am sitting at one of the stools watching and scribbling away as I laughingly turn down offers to dance. Little do they know their toes just got a reprieve!
The boat was supposed to leave at 2 pm and I thought I was being prudent in coming early but it was still not early enough. The first order of business was scrambling up onto the level where hammocks are strung. The pros have it all figured out. Get there early – some four or five hours, find the best spot, string the hammock on the hooks along the wall, leave a piece of clothing or a bottle into the hammock and then leave. And return at leisure just when the boat is about to leave.
There is an unwritten rule in boat travel in these parts. Thou Shalt Not Tamper With Another’s Hammock. Not being a pro (but learning rapidly) I got one of the last spots. Squished up against the wall and three steps from the common toilet. Would earplugs work as nose plugs, I wondered as I strung up my hammock. The five days may begin to feel like a lot longer! There are two decks for hammocks – the AC and the non-AC. I had prudently bought a ticket for the AC deck and was doubly thankful.
Cheerful “bon dias” greeted me as I met my neighbors. Loud babble of conversation filled the air and over in the corner happy hour seemed well underway. According to the rules passengers are not allowed to bring alcohol onboard, no doubt because the bar on the boat would suffer. But this does not seem to have stopped the locals. They were ostensibly drinking sprite but the expansive hilarity spoke of stronger stuff. Vendors had set up stalls on the dock amidst the bustle and were doing a brisk business in snacks.
This boat isn’t the tiny little dugout I had fondly imagined, nor is it a moderately sized motorboat. This is a close cousin to a ship, albeit a small one. But no matter, here I am about to set off on that sail up the Amazon, with nothing but the sounds of the jungle on either side. Who knows what lies ahead?
The loading area had been a hive of activity since early afternoon as the boat is loaded. The variety of goods ran the gamut from crates of eggs, a couple of bongo drums to a pet monkey to crates of fizzy drinks and sacks of flour, rice and potatoes. We were supposed to sail at 2 pm but that came and went as did 3 pm and 4. By six, the happy hour had metamorphosed into a party with copious amounts of cachaça being downed. As is the norm in these parts, someone started some music and all was well in this world.
We are off!
The Amazon so wide that it doesn’t even feel like a river. The light has almost faded and standing at the rail I see a hazy darkness on both sides with an occasional pinprick of distant light of a village on the shore.The air is humid but with the boat in motion there is a slight breeze.
One of the decks has a water pipe fixed horizontally at slightly above head level. There are spigots at intervals – this is the outdoor shower. But there are some chairs placed underneath and I wonder about them. A sitting shower perhaps?
It has become so dark that I can see nothing anymore. It is time to head back to the hammocks. The hammocks are wedged against each other with hardly a sway. Or rather, when they do swing, they do so collectively, like the classroom demonstration of Newton’s cradle. Squished up against the wall and the hammock on the other side, I imagine I will sleep albeit not very comfortably.
I met two other travelers – Sean and Diedra, a couple from Ireland. Being as as green as I am to boat travel, they too are doomed to hammocks near the toilets. But they had had the foresight to bring cachaça and we found ourselves very popular indeed. The locals are experts in making caiparinas furtively. In the blink of an eye it seemed they had managed to get the limes, a very dull knife, some paper cups and I said goodbye to an early night. As always happens in a group with assorted languages, talking is a mixture of several and misunderstandings are hilarious!
Last night I had dropped off at some point amid the orchestra of snoring only to awaken sometime around 3 am. We had stopped.
“Why did we stop?” I asked my neighbor.
“The police are here. But not to worry, we will go again soon”, she said.
“But do you know why?” I asked again, curious at this calm acceptance.
“Well”, she said “sometimes they come to search the boats. Sometimes they find drugs, sometimes exotic animals that are being smuggled. It happens often but this captain is good. He has many friends among the police. We will go again soon.”
A few of the people had got up and had stood at the rail peering down at the police launch bobbing next to our boat. Sure enough, soon they wandered back, the engines started again and we were off again.
The sun is blisteringly hot and I have found a spot with some shade to sit and watch the river go by. There are small villages strung along the shore. As the boat approaches, people, children mostly get into their dugouts and paddle frantically toward the boat. A trio of young boys are in a motorboat and easily overtake the others. They throw a rope with metal hook at the end and manage to anchor it to the boat. Then begins the fascinating sight of them pulling close and clambering up into the boat. Their agility would put many monkeys to shame!
Most of the passengers are at the railing watching the antics. I asked one of them, why they were doing this. Sometimes they will sell something from their village mostly they are looking for anything we have to give, I was told. They want our empty bottles or clothes. The advent of plastic into the Amazon rainforest I thought, wondering how many bottles they get in a day or week and what they do with them. The ones that were too slow to reach the boat do not always lose out. Many of the passengers toss clothing or bottles out on the water and then there is a race to fish them out. They can all swim like fish and prefer to leave the boat by jumping straight into the river and then swimming to their dugout or canoe. More than once when the canoes capsize in the wake of our boat, it is greeted by gales of laughter from the onlookers on the boat as well as the canoeists.
This river is like a super highway! It is so wide that it feels more like the sea except for the color of the water. It is color of café au lait as it ripples out in our wake. The current is strong they tell me and on either side are forests, so dense they appear to be impenetrable. In the beginning I saw plenty of palm trees but as we go further upriver, the palms give way to other trees. I recognize some of the ones we pass close to as papaya and mango but haven’t a clue as to the others. Sometimes we pass a large floating islands of green, Algape is the name of the plant that has aerated roots and floats. As the roots grow and expand it forms a little island and begins to support other plants are well including grass. Some of the islands closer to the shore are so large they look like a lush field of grass. It is only when they bob up and down that one realizes that these are floating islands and not land.
Now and then I see houses on the banks, most of them small, basic shacks. Each is made of wood planks with large open windows. There is no glass in the windows nor curtains. And each has a long pier built out on the water with several canoes and dugouts tied to the pier.
There is plenty of other traffic. Huge container ships go past as do all manner of boats. Other passenger boats pass by going downriver. We wave to each other as we pass. There are tug boats trailing three or four rafts piled high with lumber. A statistic that I had read somewhere comes to mind. The rainforest it is said, is being deforested at the alarming rate of ten football fields a minute! From what I recall reading, of recent years conservationist groups have had some success in slowing this rate but I don’t know what the current numbers are. There are enough boats piled with lumber to give me pause.
The outdoor shower, I found is to cool off under. Sprawled in the chairs with cans of beer, this seemed like the locals’ answer to a cruise ship. It is just as well since the AC has been turned off in the deck and it is stifling inside. I only hope they will turn it back on later.
Most of these people are heading to their families or friends in different villages along the way. Whenever the boat docks, there is a frenzy of activity. Unloading and loading anything from large crates and sacks of produce to someone’s household possessions. A large metal bed frame was followed by the mattress and then came the chairs and tables and cupboards. Passengers get off and others scramble on board adding to the melee. Local vendors line up in the quay and do brisk business. Young boys run back and forth selling cheese or hearts of palm or bags of shrimp, depending on the town and its specialty. Some half hour or an hour later we are on our way again.
The idea of sailing up the Amazon in my head was much like the idea of taking the Trans-Siberian. And just like the train, this was thrilling to begin with, and I spent the day draped over the rail watching the river, the villages, and the small ports we stopped at. The second day was much the same. But by day three it is beginning to seem the same. The same muddy brown water, the same routine, the same views.
Chatting with some of the Brazilians on board, I found that there is a small village nearby called Altar De Chao, that is quaint and they recommended visiting. Better yet, there was supposed to be a festival in a couple of days. I needed no further urging. Late in the day when we reached Santarem, I decided to get off and make my way to Alter De Chao for a few days before getting on a boat to Manaus.