March 20, 2007

40 Hours to the River
Belém, Brazil

A mad dash from the coast to the Amazon.

Pipa To Belém

Rare it is that I awake to an alarm these days. With no university classes to sleep through, home/yard to maintain, or corporate meetings to attend, my days are my own. That is, unless I need to catch a bus.

I was waking up early for buses fairly regularly in Central America (a chicken bus can only take you so far in a day), but the distances that have to be traversed in South America are much greater, and typically warrant the overnight bus travel not available in Central America (the bonuses: arriving in the daylight and saving on a night of accommodations).

A great sleep was at hand until I was jarred awake before 4:30 in the morning to catch my 5:00 bus from Pipa to Natal. I know the timing of my morning travel routine so well that I had less than five minutes to wait before the bus arrived, and I was traveling away from the last piece of Latin American coast that I'll see (for a long time).

The trip was a half hour longer than expected, and there was no way I'd make a 9:00 bus leaving Natal if I left Pipa at 6:30 AM (the next available departure time).

BR$228 was forked out for the 2,300 kilometer journey—about the distance between Seattle and Phoenix—the look on my face must have been worth at least this amount when the ticking agent replied to my inquiry of duration with an answer of 36 hours. I asked where the televisions were on the seating chart (to help with my selection). No televisions, the man replied in Portuguese. Any food service or water to drink, I asked. No, said the man, entertained by my lack of enthusiasm.

I was having second thoughts—maybe that flight was a good idea after all.

I ended up buying the ticket with a great sigh, and scurried off to find a few minutes of Internet access and gather consumables for the ass-numbing trip.

If you've ever wondered where all that extra carpeting goes that's found in casinos, I can tell you. It's used to cover the seat cushions and accent the sides and ceilings of South American buses. I consistently get a good chuckle in as I enter these vehicles.

My (selected) assigned seat was on the left-hand side of the bus, far enough away from the malodorous toilet in the back to keep the smell from bringing back flashbacks of the streets of Salvador during Carnival.

A side note on seat selection: A traveler once told me he always sat on the driver's side of the bus, just in case of a (rather common) head-on collision. In the final moments the driver is sure to instinctively swerve away from impacting his side of the bus. Good advice that I tend to follow, unless the trip is short and that side of the bus gets the sun.

My seat was broken—figures. I pay more for a bus trip than a flight from Florida to California, and get a busted seat to boot. I changed location, and wondered who I'd have to fight off later because I was found camping in their computer-assigned seat.

South American bus seats

The seats on these buses remind me of something found in modern cinema, but I'd be spending much more time in mine than a two hour movie—about the equivalent of 18 of 'em.

Time passed rather quickly, considering the amount we're talking about here. To phrase it another way, imagine sitting at your desk at work—an entire week's worth of sitting done back-to-back—standing only occasionally.

The sitting didn't bother me; I had clearly marked both the seats in my row as Craig territory (occasionally stretching the borders of my land as far as a third seat, across the aisle). No attempts to talk to the gringo sitting in their seat(s) were made.

What was the most aggravating about the trip was the frequency and duration of stops made. We must have stopped at the bus terminals of 30+ towns, each taking upwards of 10–20 minutes. Sometimes the drivers would switch out at these points, other times a 10–15 minute stop was made just for this. Of course there were food stops—30 minutes a pop—as well as stops for fuel.

At least I was able to take advantage of a morning breakfast break to wash my hair in the bathroom sink and get in a good wipe-down.

I'm guessing that hours upon hours were wasted away as the bus idled—but then again, I was the only person traveling for this duration, and received the maximum exposure. All was taken in stride, though, and 40-something hours after I left Pipa I arrived in Belém.

Part of me was looking for that line that represented my breaking point for sustained bus travel, but if such a thing exists, it's still a mystery to me. I could have taken another day for sure (although I hope to never find out).

Cheapest Bed In Brazil

A fellow known as The Hungry Cyclist left a message on the Lonely Planet forum about some inexpensive accommodations, and I decided to give them a shot. I weighed the risks/probable frustration of taking a city bus (after dark), and still decided against the taxi.

Having the address of the hotel, a map, the bus station exit strategy instructions from my guidebook, and a surprisingly competent bus driver seemed to be the winning combination this particular evening.

The cyclist's post was spot on—BR$10/night for the no-frills 10-person dormitory room at the Hotel Amazonia (548 Rua O De Almeida). If you've ever been inside of a basement converted into a bedroom by a teenager, it's sort of like that—think walls made of bare particle board.

This establishment takes the honors of the cheapest housing I've seen/stayed at in Brazil (and did surprisingly well, considering).

In the midst of checking in I discovered that the kid behind the desk was married to the daughter of a woman who could sell me a boat ticket up the Amazon. Need a hammock? She could help you out there too, of course.

Upstream boats depart on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. If I didn't want to hang around Belém for three nights (which I didn't), I'd have to take care of a dozen things in the morning and be at docks by noon.


Ethan Zara

March 27th, 2007

Whatever you do, don't fall into the Amazon. It takes like a second for these tiny larvae to find their way into your body and raise their own little families.

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