Gone south

Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
1
12
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Trip End Jul 19, 2007


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Friday, March 10, 2006

Things were starting to get even more exciting. The date for my first border crossing had finally arrived. Rather than get the direct bus from Santa Elena to Manaus, five of us from the Roraima 'Extreme' trek decided to cross the border on foot and then catch a bus from the Brazilian side to Boa Vista and then from there to Manaus. During our search for a cash machine the week before, a.k.a the Visa line scandal, we were told there was one at the border that would work so I headed off with only B25000 in my pocket thinking of taking more out when I got there. Better to carry as little cash as you can I always think. There was a bank and the bank had an ATM, that much was true. But did the ATM accept foreign cards? Nope! Luckily I could change my Bolivares to Reais at the border and had enough to get me to Boa Vista. Paying by card also doesn't seem to be as much of a problem in Brazil as it is in Venezuela so I had that as a backup.

The road down was something else. It was another overnight trip but with even less sleep than the one to Santa Elena where we were rudely interrupted every two hours by the police. Two or three years ago this road used to be just a dirt track and from what I have read I thought it was a paved road now making the journey much smoother. I almost thought the driver had drunk too much with all the swings from left to right. As it turns out, the road had been paved but not maintained so the potholes were enormous and on occasions we had to actually leave the road and drive beside it because it was so bad! At some point during the night (must have been one of the rare moments I closed my eyes) we passed over the equator.

At least it made for an interesting journey ;-). I now have myself a Brazilian stamp in the passport with 60 days to get around. Stop me if I am repeating myself here but I don't think I could have asked for a better start to my Brazilian trip than to have met up again with Eddie in Manaus. I met Eddie (my slave) in Mochima almost a month ago and now I was calling by his city so thought I would give him a ring and see how things were.

He invited myself and Pat back to his pad to have a look at some of the videos he has recorded and I got to see the one he did of me. Unfortunately I didn't get to distract him enough to press delete so some day yet you may see me on international film flopping about like a fish as I try to get onto a boat.

With Eddie being of artistic talent he had been invited to a Carnaval party hosted by the Amazonas government/council and took myself and Pat along as guests. Of course, the prerequisite was to arrive decked out in Carnaval gear. Not having much time to look around I chose a glittery mask to cover my face, a good thing I hear you say otherwise all the locals would have run away with fright! The party was fantastic and some people had extraordinary costumes. I would describe them but I find it a little difficult to remember as not only was the party free but also the alcohol! Did I mention alcohol? Nope - I didn't touch it, honestly! Who? Me? Drink alcohol? You mean did I break my vow to not touch a drop of the stuff for a whole year while in South America? Never!

Well, maybe just one, or two...Oh ok, quite a few in fact. Next day I wasn't feeling so good, the temperature was around 43C and we had to catch the boat to Santarem (36 hours) at midday. So, bags packed we headed off to the port and slung our hammocks on the top deck, away from the engine and toilets (they were baaaaaaaaaaad). Our journey along the largest river in the world, with a length of 6275km (3890 miles) was about to begin. It left the port an hour late but I thought that was quite good as I had heard stories of anything up to 5 days delay. So the fun was only just beginning and soon after we called into our first port along the way. 5 minutes later to be exact and still in Manaus. We had literally only moved 200m downstream to another port where most people board the boat and stayed there for 4 hours. So after 5 hours of sitting around on hammocks we left, and this time it really was on it's way.

About twenty minutes into the trip we came across the "Meeting of the Waters". This is where the Río Negro and the Río Solimões (which becomes the Río Amazonas) meet. Although the two rivers meet at this point, you can still distinguish the two rivers for quite some time as the waters don't mix. It's a bit like having a black coffee on one side and a café con leche on the other. After that, I just settled down on my hammock and watched the world go by, and of course, the sun go down. As I sat there watching the sun set beyond the Amazon River, yet again I couldn't believe I was actually here doing something that I had been wanting to do for the last three years! To say I am having a fantastic time would be an understatement!

Our plan was to head to Santarem and stay a night or two in Alter do Chao which was an hour away on bus. This was a lovely village which had a lake with a sandbar and huts selling food and drink. During the wet season, the sandbar is covered by the water but at the moment the water just licks your feet while you sit there sipping caipirinhas (the national drink of Brazil). What? Me? Drink a caipirinha? Well, you have to sample the local drink. It would be a sin not to!

Our plan didn't work out. There were no boats to Belém until 3 days later. Pat had to be in Belém to catch a flight down to Buenos Aires and although it would have been nice and relaxing, I'm not really much of a beach-babe. So we took drastic measures and headed off to Macapá with a plan to catch another boat from Macapá to Belém. This worked out in the end to be twice the price of going direct to Belém which made the visit to Alter do Chao a very expensive daytrip! But I still enjoyed the six days on a hammock doing nothing. It's what I like to call the budget version of P&O Cruises! It was definitely something I needed to do after 5 years of hard work!

At this point I still hadn't come to grips with the lingo but luckily David (whom I met on the Roraima trip and bumped into again in Manaus after his foray into Guyana) had befriended a local who let us know when it was time to eat. How was the food then? Well, each boat was different. Lunch and dinner was the same on all boats, the standard PF (prato feito) that you find all over Brazil consisting of pasta, rice, beans and meat. What you had for lunch you had again for dinner so variety wasn't really the key word here. Breakfast differed greatly between only crackers and coffee to 3 fruits, ham & cheese sandwich, porridge and as much coffee as you liked all day. Showering was only for the brave but the second boat wasn't so bad so I decided to go for it. Although I only thought afterwards that if I hadn't showered I may have had less neighbours either side of me during the night.

For some reason (I'm sure some weather expert out there can explain it) the wind picked up during the night and rather than "Rock a bye baby" it was more like "We will, we will ROCK you" by Queen! Imagine, if you will, a child on a swing trying to get it as high as they can. Well, that's what it was like, but without having to do it yourself! David decided it was time for some drastic action and clipped himself down with the belt on his backpack! At one point I almost said goodbye to my glasses and water bottle as they decided to make a break for freedom from their resting point on top of my rucksack. But with a quick jump from the hammock I managed to save them, phew! (Imagine the usual slow motion "Noooooooooooooo" picture here ;-) ). The waves weren't just little ones like you get on the rivers back home, but massive ones with white horses riding on top. I now have a better understanding of what it was like for Glynn and Dave on their Atlantic crossing, although I guess it would have been a bit difficult to find enough space to sling a hammock in their case.

So we finally landed in Belém and found ourselves booked into the cheapest and most popular hotel. It wasn't the best but at only 8R a night, I'm not complaining. Belém is a beautiful colonial city and rather than just drab concrete on the front of buildings, they use azulejo tiles in order to repel the heat of day and the midday downpours. Unfortunately many are not well maintained and are quickly falling into disrepair. São Luis, my next destination is supposed to be even more impressive with a renovation project started in the 80s to bring everything back to their former beauty.

One day was enough to see what you need to see in Belém and I was ready to leave next day as was Pat to head for Buenos Aires. But while walking around the old part of the city, I saw someone with a hat saying "Clube do Remo". My legs tingled with the thought of a paddle on part of the Amazon. Time for a Portuguese lesson here now. "Remar" means to row and "remo" is the noun. I may not be the sharpest arrow, but when you see what appears to be a rowing club posing for a photo in what appears to be a football stadium with what appears to be a goalie holding what appears to be a football you have to think something is wrong! Maybe they had to find something to do when the Amazon dried up??? I eventually found out "Clube de Remo" is one of the top football clubs in the Pará region and started off as a rowing club. The rowing section is "Clube de Remo Nautica". Paysandu, the other top football club started the same way. I'm sure Reading started off as a rowing club aswell (currently top spot in Championship ready for promotion to Premiership!!!).

I finally sniffed out the rowing club and after speaking to one of the chaps, he suggested calling down next day to see how the club worked and Pat and I found ourselves down there at 6am next morning (I know, insane, not something I would do at home!). Afterwards as we chatted Pat seemed to have bottomless glass of beer...at 10 o´clock in the morning while I came away with a CDRN hat, shorts and t-shirt! I could really get to like this club!!!

To all those I ever rowed with or coxed back in Reading you have to consider yourselves lucky. Equipment here is wooden boats, rowing conditions can be worse than Tideway and outing times can only be between 5.30am and 7.30am in order to beat the rough water. I managed to get out for a paddle with Luis and then on my own in a single. This was a new experience as I had only ever rowed on glass back in Reading. At times I was convinced I would have my first real capsize, but I survived intact! If ever my definition of hard work was to be challenged this was where it was going to happen. I have always said that in order to prove you have done some work during an outing you have to come back sweating. Well, by that definition, just sitting in a chair watching tv is enough to constitute exercise. It is so humid and hot over here yet somehow everyone manages to do almost ninety minutes of rowing without a sip of water passing their lips.

They do have it good on the other hand. Every now and again, a river dolphin would pop up in front of me to make it interesting. But even better than that, Maria is there every morning to cook them a delicious breakfast. And all this comes for free! There are no membership costs and they are sponsored by Hiléia who provide the food.

Pat had braved an unknown world of travelling with me and survived all of it, probably emotionally scarred for life, but still alive at least! The time had now come to say goodbye. But it wasn't time to say goodbye to Belém yet. Some had mentioned that there was a regatta on in a month and suggested I stay. The temptation was even bigger when Antonio invited me to stay at his house with his family. Rowing would prove to be difficult (what with the heat) and coxing wasn't really a possibility (for some silly reason, only men can cox men). Shame really as I was looking forward to coxing eight men in Speedos, the standard kit for outings over here!

Despite my intentions to stay only one night I still found myself there 7 days later. Rather than traveller's diarrhoea I had traveller's dilemma. My travel itch was starting to break out in a rash and I needed to go. But I also wanted to stay. Having bumped into Xavier and Didac (from the Roraima trek) I decided it was time to go. To all the people of Belém that I met: you are fantastic and I may just have to revise my route to Peru to involve another stop in Belém!

Notes
For all you Portuguese philistines, in the case of a word beginning with 'R', the 'R' is pronounced like "H". By logic of that, the beautiful Rio de Janeiro that we all know and love is no more. It is, in fact, Hio de Janeiro. Just not the same :'-(
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