Its funny how comfortable I´ve become with Brazil and its bus systems. After arriving in São Luís, I just grabbed the first bus that had a park I recognized written on the windshield, got off there, and walked to the albergue. Much cheaper than taking a cab, and easier than trying to figure out exactly which bus takes you there. São Luís has a reputation for being a very big reggae spot - I guess a ten day festival had just ended when I got here. It is definitely relaxed (dead, you might say) during the day and during the night, it is a nice vibe of chilled out kinda fun. Little praças with live reggae bands on each block, tables in the street and stuff.
But the first thing I did in São Luís was to use it as a jumping off point to the Lençóis Maranhenses park which is nearby
. If I had more time (not on my side anymore), the better idea would be to spend the night in Barreirinhas which is much closer to the park. Because as it was, by the time the buses arrive there the groups to the park have gone already and you can´t wait until the afternoon because then you wont be able to catch the bus back to SL. Yeah, so thats what happened to me but I had come with a couple brasileiros and we kinda formed our own group to go. The park was pretty looking and seemingly very out of place when you think of normal Brasil environments. Just white sand dunes as long as you can see. But then water collects in pools and looks gorgeous, like a mirage in the middle of the desert. We did a bunch of swimming, relaxing, trying to run up the dunes, and walking. It was great to go but I didn´t really need to spend any more time there. It is not what you think of when you hear the word "park". How fun is it to just walk....and walk....and walk.....in the sand under a blazing sun? Got a ride back to SL with a buddy of our guide. Five of us cramped in a tiny little car blaring forró for 3 hours. Had-to-be-there kinda funny. This was on Thanksgiving Day.
Little story: met an Irish dude in SL who had just come from Belém and, long story short, left his travel buddy there who was waiting for a new credit card to arrive and was broke. So he gave me some dough to deliver to him since I was going to Belém as well and probably going to the same hotel (I use that term very loosely). Pretty funny scene when I actually gave him the money, him having no idea who I am but giving him money. He had just spent his last reais on six apples to get him through the weekend. Yeah, he was a happy dude.
Belém actually has places that brew their own beer, so I had my first good beer in months
! An actual ale! Yup, I think Belém is 1 degree south of the equator and, just to point out the obvious, it is really really hot here. But a couple of good things. It rains every day, even just for 15 minutes, to cool stuff down. And the amount of trees here is an obvious difference with everywhere else I´ve been. They are almost all mango trees, but it provides some shade and actually makes the town look a lot better when it would otherwise look really scuzzy. They have done a lot with this city´s downtown area just in the last couple years, trying to restore buildings and make places worthy of a visit. Not nearly as dangerous as it was, but still not exactly safe. I got here with the intention of going down the Amazon to Manaus where you can organize a trip into the jungle. But the next boat wasn´t leaving for like three days so I had time to kill in Belém. The market is really cool and you can get great all you can eat food for like $2. Went to the zoo here which was cool. Actually a bunch of the birds, rodents, sloths and stuff they just let roam free so you kinda gotta watch it. First tapir I think I´ve seen - they´re nocturnal so I doubt I´ll ever see a wild one. Before leaving, the Irish guy gave me his hammock, mosquito net, tuperware & spoon, and malaria pills. This was a big bonus as everything but the mosquito net was necessary item for the trip I didn´t have yet. The problem with sailing to Manaus is that I am going upriver (most folks choose to go the other way - I guess thats one benefit of planning a trip) so it is a six day voyage
. On a nasty boat sleeping in hammocks with people all over you. I am not kidding, they pack as many people as possible into this space. Anyway, I did have a couple days and wanted to go to a place called Alter do Chão anyway, so I bought a ticket to Santarém - about halfway to Manaus.
I had met a couple of more brasileiros who rode the same bus as me to Belém and we were working on similar itineraries, so we set up camp on the boat next to each other. It is really hard to explain the boat. Bottom level was all cargo. Just orange bags packed with onions and stuff stacked to the brim all up and down. The second deck was full of hammocks and was where we ate. The top deck was the party deck where there was a bar and forró blared until 2am. We set up our stuff on the top because thats where it was supposed to be better. Funny, because when we got there the second deck was full and the "better" deck was empty. I think it was because they were families and up top was loud music and loud drunks playing dominos or cards at all hours. Remember when I said I liked forró? I don´t need to hear anymore for the rest of the trip. From 10am until 2am every single day, it blared loudly. Breakfast was the normal crappy Brazilian breakfast (piece of bread and coffee, which I don´t drink), lunch was the normal Brazilian awesome, and dinner was leftover lunch turned into soup. I didn´t really have any issues with sleeping in a hammock, but it definitely got cold at night and you for sure needed something to cover yourself. No bugs because we were moving pretty good. Two people on the boat really developed a fancy for me: an absolutely hammered 40ish dude, and an 11 year old girl. The dude wouldn´t stop rambling to me (I couldn´t understand him, but apparently it was hilarious), and the girl wouldn´t stop sneaking up and snapping pictures of me
The boat gave some truly gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. And you could see pink river dolphins (!!!!) playing and jumping out of the water, sometimes feeding on shrimp. I had no idea they even existed - maybe you have to see it to believe it. It is awesome. Also some folks spotted manatees, but I didn´t. Sailing up the Amazon River with all this, and the banks lined with trees, made quite a scene. Something you dream about when you´re a kid. Sometimes the Amazon was narrow and sometimes it was so wide you could barely see either side. And just similar to the cities or at the bus stations, there would be little boats with kids, beggars, that would paddle up to ours, waiting for people to throw stuff overboard to them. Some actually tried jumping aboard but just bit water. I need to look this up to see if it is true, but somebody working on the boat said that the river can be from 25-100m deep. That would be just unreal. And lest folks get too depressed over the US education system, a middle aged woman on the boat got excited for me since I was from NYC, another dude on the boat was from Germany, and the two are right next to each other.
Three days later, got to Santarém and took a bus to Alter do Chão. Alter do Chão is a really pretty river beach area. Curvy beaches, mountain in the background, forest all around. But the whole place is under construction now (for better or worse) - will look much different when I return someday. Did some kyaking down the Rio Tapajós, very pretty. Found a spot that let us throw up our hammocks for cheap, all we had to do was watch out for the bats. Funny açaí story there but I am noticing that this entry is already super long and I haven´t gotten to Manaus yet.
So, skipping some stuff, managed to get back onto a boat to Manaus after a few days break, split up with the folks I´d been with for a couple weeks now, and actually met another American on this boat
. Much different boat. Shadier vibe to it. And had the same amount of people, except nobody allowed on the top deck, so the 2nd deck was absolutely crammed with hammocks. On top of each other, going sideways, diagonal, in the aisle, over the eating table, just everywhere. Actually a calypso band was aboard for a show in Manaus. Like 20 people! Finally finished my first book on this boat. O Leão, a Feticeira, e o Guarda-roupa. This boat was like bootcamp. Every mealtime, a dude did rounds about the boat blowing his whistle, shaking people out of their hammoks and stuff. What the heck is going on... So you could count on not sleeping past 5am. Got into Manaus at 2am, so just stayed on the boat and spent the night there for free since the area around the port is not safe at all at night. (Oh yeah, somewhere along the way was a blue moon, I think. It was bright orange and beautiful shining off the Amazon)
Right away in Manaus, booked a trip with the American dude (Who lives in NYC by the way. So I´ve met 5 Americans and 4 live in NYC. Weird) and an Italian dude for 6 days. We got an unreasonably good deal (what a lot of folks pay for 3 days), and we might have gotten what we paid for. Not really. There are a couple levels of "going-into-the-jungle" and the best coolest way is to go to one of the reserves, way into the jungle further west
. But that takes time and money. So I think we did the best, given our situation. It was amazing country and land, it was just obvious that we were not blazing a new trail here. Did see the absolute most hot-pink sky I have ever seen. Finally saw a cupuaçu fruit after drinking the juice all this time, along with guaraná, and starfruit (my new favorite juice) trees.
A little ecology lesson here: there are "white" and "black water" rivers (although both look brownish). From what I understand, the black ones are darker because they have come from longer away and have more leaves and stuff that have fallen in and carried and some kind of chemical reaction kills many of the micro-organisms there. So you have less mosquitos and in turn, less other wildlife. The white rivers are the opposite and tend to have more insects and other wildlife. We were on black water.
The most impressive thing about the Amazon jungle trip was the sounds. Just the variety and stuff. Birds making sounds like I´ve never heard before. Many birds, prehistoric looking insects (gigantic butterflys and moths), frogs, and monkeys around the area. But not much more wildlife. But the atmosphere - in the jungle with a hundred shades of green, vines everywhere that we´d swing from, and no sun coming through - was fantastic
. At night once, walking barefoot (mistake) I actually got a half dozen termites burying themselves into my feet. Felt like fire, I was flipping out, yanked them out, then they wouldn´t fling off and tried out my fingers! And I got attacked my a whole truckload of tics. But what do you expect, right? Some really cool tips on plants and how they were useful. One in particular, the bark would kill the fish. So the Indians could just put the bark in the water and fish that way. Absolutely gigantic (meters) cobwebs that were seriously strong. The variety of botany was really cool, stuff you see in a Dr. Seuss book. We saw monkeys once, and they weren´t happy to see us. So they started crapping on us. REALLY funny. Sounded like rain drops falling through the trees...except it was poop. They would howl and make a racket. Had poor aim though. Even broke off huge branches to let tumble down on us. And places where the ground looked covered forever in masses of ants. Just ran through that area. Really huge. First time I saw a rubber tree, also. Strange to see rubber seeping out like maple syrup. Rubber was the big thing here a long time ago. Did more piranha fishing, but this time, the piranha were quadruple (or more) times bigger than the ones in the Pantanal. And I thought that fishing was really out-back fishing (stick, line, hook), but in the Amazon, all we did was throw out a fishing line with a hook on it, and hold onto the fishing line. No pole. But I caught one - the only tourist to do so (yea!). Also like the Pantanal, there was a tree vine you could cut and drink out of, but instead of dripping, this one was like a faucet just got turned on. Surreal stuff. Did lots of jungle hiking during the days here. And swimming in the river. Rio Uburú. The Italian guy was scared out of his mind during the nights. We slept in the jungle in hammocks and there were tons of eerie noises, but you just gotta put it out and go to bed. Instead he was up every 2 minutes wildly waving the flashlight around
. I guess it hadn´t rained in like 2 weeks and mid-December is when the rain really comes, so we were bracing for it, and the second to last day, it came. All day, like cats and dogs. Actually very beautiful to look at the whole thing, the river, trees, and everything. And then the hiking afterward definitely had a different feel. Last day, we made blow dart guns which work really really well! Super cool - have to figure out how to get this thing by customs. The day came to return to Manaus (it was about a 3 hour bus and 1 hour boat to where we were from Manaus). So we did, crashed, and the next day I checked out the famous Teatro Amazonas. Back when Manaus was rich (rubber boom), the Europeans built an opera theater here and it really is something else. I´ve never seen an opera before, not sure if I could make it through one, but the theater at least was really cool. Even had a ballroom for people to dance during intermission. After all this jungle business, my reward? First night in a bed in about 2.5 weeks. The hammock is going to the bottom of the backpack. Later in the day - the flight to Rio.
[Sometime in Alter do Chão, my camera broke. You might think I´d be upset, but the truth is that it was pretty crappy, and it was a small relief not to have to take pictures every time I saw something cool. Kinda sucks for you guys though! I do have some pictures of stuff beforehand, but can´t access them yet, and couldn´t take any from Alter do Chão onward.]
**Edited Jan. 16 - Just put up a bunch of old pictures