A Float Up the Amazon River
Rio Amazonas, Brazil
Floating 1,500 kilometers in a hammock.
Rumors and the Complaints of Others
Truth be told, I hadn't met a lot of people who had done a Belém–Manaus hammock float. Since my arrival in Colombia, I've been traveling in the wrong direction around this continent to hear more than whispers.
Boring, they said. The scenery never changes and the food was nothing but rice and beans, said another. You'd be better off flying, exclaimed an Italian in Pipa.
Bring food, bring water, bring a chain for your backpack, and bring a book, was the general sentiment.
Different people, different backgrounds, different interests, different paths, different mindsets—reasons why I wasn't dissuaded from the trip.
Every day that I was on those riverboats—all six of them—I looked at my little security setup and mentally gave myself a pat on the back. The peace of mind it brought was priceless.
The contents of my pack are worth more than what one of the dock workers earns in a year. Everyone on the boats saw me with my music player. Everyone on the boats saw me with a digital camera. Way too many people saw me typing with my PDA. People were always watching, and knew my movements.
It was a pain in the ass to be sure, but to be able to walk away without the thought of grabby hands or bag snatchers entering my mind was wonderful.
Privacy was a problem. It didn't bother me falling to sleep (or waking up) around so many, but to get a block of time to yourself to sit and reflect and watch the river (or write) was difficult for me to find.
My second boat, the Leão IV, felt like a daycare center. I can tolerate infants and children for only small amounts at a time, and to be surrounded by the moans, cries, shrieks, stomping, playing, raised voices, and general disruption they bring to the environment drove me nuts.
I would look at the mothers and think: I wonder if they keep having children, just so they can feel needed.
The Leão IV was full of annoyances. From the ceiling height that was two inches too low for my height, to the music volume level on the top deck, to the person who stole my bottle of shampoo. Don't ride on this boat.
For all the comments I heard (and similar warnings read), I expected the food aboard these vessels to be merely at the subsistence level. But as I have scaled back my eating to the subsistence level for the past two months (the excess gained in Argentina has to go), I was not concerned.
Everyone looked forward to meal time—and for good reason—the food was fantastic. I am a simple street-food eater, and the dishes that were prepared twice daily were the combined equivalent of nearly three days worth of food to me (and of a quality I rarely find myself eating).
Most meals consisted of huge chunks of chicken or slow-cooked beef, and a mixture of rice, noodles, mashed potatoes, baked beans, veggie/beef stew, and the occasional dessert or pitcher of juice. It was sort of like an entire buffet piled and mixed together on one plate.
Make sure to bring hot sauce and you'll be sure to make friends, one traveler wrote online. Well, both of my boats provided excellent hot sauce, and my bottle went unused. Drinking water was always readily available.
So many hammocks. I've never see so many in once place before in my life. All shapes, varieties, and quality levels were present.
My hammock (like my foreign languages spoken) is very utilitarian—it gets the job done. Don't get me wrong, the hammock I bought is comfortable, durable, spacious, and not totally unattractive, but lacks sufficiently the categories in weight, size, material, and visual appeal to keep me from taking it traveling with me.
My hammock is of a type I'm very familiar with. It looks and feels like an all-weather outdoor hammock, that could sit outside a hostel, hotel, or bungalow all day, every day of the year. The weave supports my frame and doesn't conflict with my body temperature.
Many Brazilians traveling with their own hammocks have a different variety. A few have nylon models, but a solid, lightweight piece of cloth is more common among the passengers. One particular variety (pictured above) really caught my attention—I wanted the orange one (with a single floral print stenciled on it) badly.
I was a bit of an oddity on my boats, and with nothing better to do than chat, many of the Brazilians were intensely curious about me. This was a blessing and a curse wrapped into one.
It took a solid 24 hours of exposure for people to come out of their shells. I was honestly wondering if the teenager swinging next to me aboard the Rodrigues Alves V was a mute, as it wasn't until the second night before he actually did more than use silent hand gestures with me to communicate.
I loved observing everything from hidden gambling games in the cargo hold to the habits of dental care. Likewise, I have no doubt that many Brazilians were observing my habits, and I always seemed to have one hovering closely or looking over my shoulder.
Language was and wasn't a problem at times; no English was spoken by the passengers or crew. I didn't have the heart try and explain to a boat full of Brazilians that my desire to learn their language was about as great as my desire to return to their country. We managed, none the less.
Forget The Novel
After so many murmurs of repetitive scenery, I decided I needed to bring some ammunition with me on the float.
I picked up from a hostel in Pipa what must be one of the longest novels written in the English language. I jested with the Brazilians that the crew could use the 1,500 page behemoth as an extra anchor, if the need should arise.
This massive book went completely unread though—the scenery along the Amazon River is anything but dull. There is such diversity along the riverbank as you move upstream that each day reveals a new twist to the landscape. I was completely captivated.
The Amazon River is not the endless sea of water that I expected. I wondered if you'd be able to see to the other side of the shore in some parts; the water stretching to the horizon. But this isn't the case. It is a big river, but its size is visually comprehensible.
What really surprised me was how little traffic there was. I envisioned something similar to the Panama Canal, but I only saw three cargo boats of this size in six days. Even traffic from smaller vessels fell far short of light. The river was empty.
Empty or not, the boats I traveled on hugged the riverbank like none other—either side of the river, it didn't matter.
I'm told that all the boats headed upriver travel closer to the shore than the downstream vessels. I'm not sure if this is because of some type of nautical path yielding, or because the current is less swift along the bank.
I saw grey dolphins feeding and playing every day I floated up the river, save my first. The unexpected sight of these animals always brought a focus to my eyes and a smile to my face. Very, very neat.
I find myself wondering what it's like to be a part of the big 850-passenger boats carrying all those backpackers. What are the trade-offs—more conversation and worse food?
Most consider Manaus about the halfway mark up the Amazon River. The waterway is called other names further upstream, along its origins to the west, but the Rio Amazonas is a label carried on most maps all the way into Peru.
I'm curious what a boat trip to Iquitos (the end of the line) would be like. If I had decided to fly out of South America from Lima instead of Caracas, then I would be boating up the totality of the river.
Manaus–Iquitos—another time, perhaps. For now, I will add a trip up the great Amazon River the my ever-growing list of life experiences.