March 22, 2007

Making Ready at the Mouth
Rio Amazonas, Brazil

Haggling, hammocks, and hot sauce.

A Busy Morning

I had been running around for three hours, trying to run errands on a timer in a city that I had no prior exposure to. Finding (open) Internet access proved more difficult than it should have been.

I made my way back to the hotel and asked the staffer at the desk (that I had not seen before) about the rumored lady who could get me a ticket for today's upstream departure. He made a phone call and told me to wait. Ten minutes later a warm-spirited Brazilian woman in her early 50s entered the small lobby.

Oh, she was a pleasant little thing, and loved to flirt with the Americano—and all I did was toss more flirty gas on the fire, as a smile and a little wink can save you a lot of money when dealing with lady merchants.

After some friendly banter she laid out my options: Two boats were departing for Manaus tonight at the same time. One was the carrying 850 passengers and cost BR$170, the second would be carrying less than 200 passengers and cost BR$150. Both took around five days.

A cheaper option with fewer people—I was waiting for the catch. Both prices were excellent, as I was expecting to have to pay in excess of BR$200+ for the trip (my guidebook says the float should cost BR$155, four or more years ago).

It turned out the big boat was direct to Manaus, whereas the smaller one required a boat transfer in Santarém on the third morning (to another that also carried less than 200 passengers). She also noted that someone in her extended family ran this particular outfit (…no surprises there).

Her family's boat sounded fine to me, and after we settled the bill it came time to get my hammock situation straightened out. Incidentally, I have yet to find a local that has paid less than BR$160 for the same ticket (but have been told by the crew that tickets go for between BR$145 and 180).

If I failed to mention it earlier, two classes of travel are available on these boats: Cabin and hammock. People buy a ticket, and the smart ones traveling hammock-class get to the dock 6–8 hours before the boat launches to claim a good spot. I wanted to be there by noon, and it was already close to half past eleven.

The woman took me to a hammock store a few blocks away, in front of the Hotel Forteleza (a Lonely Planet budget recommendation), which her family also owned (…naturally). I was instantly overwhelmed.

Now I'm a big hammock fan, much more so than the average guy, but as for owning or purchasing one—it's never happened. What did I know about such a things.

If money talks, I was whispering. The owner and I started eliminating options quickly. I had in my head that I would not exceed BR$20 for a hammock, which was plenty to be spending on one.

Different sizes, materials, colors—Lord. Did I want to get something that had value to me after the trip, or just make a purchase with the intention of selling/donating it in Manaus. I was attracted to the small, light, nylon varieties, but had no experience laying in one and had too many questions—does the fabric heat up, how strong is it, etc.

I ended up selecting a very heavy (and generally unattractive) weaved cotton model that I had confidence in (and past experiences with). The size selected was, in the opinion of the owner, best for the space issues I'd be having on the boat (although it was plenty big).

This hammock was not something that I will be adding to the inventory of my backpack—it would take up damn near the entire compartment—but might be something I'd consider hauling with me until I pass through the U.S. in April (on my way to SE Asia).

I boogied back to the hotel, gathered my pack, and after talking with the staffer (and looking at a city map), determined my port was not within walking distance. I was told that bus #318 would take me past Porto Palmeraço, but the clock was ticking, and I was getting concerned (as I waited on the street for a bus that may or may not take me to my desired destination). With a sigh I dug into my pocket and fished out the cash necessary for an expensive Brazilian taxi.

Porto Palmeraço is not the typical port used to load all the backpacking gringos onto the beefy 850-passenger beasts. This port is small, obscure, and in the middle of a part of town with a real port feeling to it (if you catch my drift).

I was still rather rushed, and needed two short pieces of strong rope to tie my hammock up with. I found some random fellow and paid him BR$2 to go cannibalize/round up some for me while I checked in with the crew member sitting in front of a grey vessel (that wasn't the floating pile of rust I expected).

Aboard The Rodrigues Alves V

Navigating past the dock workers (loading everything from potatoes to toilet seats into the cargo hold), I was a bit concerned; 30 hammocks were already hanging in the center of ship. Research I had done (as well as the woman who had sold me my ticket) stressed the value of hammock placement on this mode of river travel (hence the reason I was at the ship over six hours before it departed).

Hammocks for all but the latest of arrivals are strung horizontally across the deck, from port to starboard. The goal is to get a good spot as far away from the toilets, eating area, and engines as possible (all found in the rear of the boat), while also managing to keep away from the foot traffic areas around the sides of the ship.

The early-birds had interweaved their hammocks down the center of the lowest deck (of three), a location probably best for keeping the sensation of a yawing boat to a minimum. The open-air top deck sported a bar, plastic tables and chairs, big stereo speakers, and the bridge. The middle deck contained a cluster of small air-conditioned cabins ("suites"), and a room for hammock-class passengers who desired A/C (for an extra BR$10). There wasn't a backpacker (or backpack) in sight.

I found a spot, and was instantly pleased with its location. The forward 10ft of the deck's passenger area was (mostly) filled with boxes of apples, lettuce, and eggs, creating a sort of artificial wall (that people could squeeze around to get from one side of the ship to the other, without interfering with the hammock area). My spot was also next to a solid pole (it's importance mentioned in a moment), on the port side of the ship, parallel to the wall of produce.

There were no hooks to hang the hammocks from, but bars welded to the ceiling, running from bow to stern. The human slings were tied to these bars in a manner befitting the length of the hammock and preference of the owner.

I can tie a few knots, but wanted to get this right, so I asked the teenaged boy that was my new neighbor to offer up his advice. He tied the first, I learned, and then I tied the second. I was in business.

The pole that I was next to was of great importance for the security of my pack. I had read and heard nothing but warnings about theft on these boats (typically occurring when the vessel temporarily pulls into a dock and vendors flood the decks, selling everything from edible plant roots to watches). High on my list of mental preparation was the safety of my belongings.

Amazon boat backpack security

I normally use my Pacsafe wire mesh to keep someone from walking away with my bag, but I needed additional protection from slashing and sneaky fingers that wished to wiggle their way past the net and into the compartments of my pack. My solution (thought up several months ago), was to snugly cover my backpack with the rain-fly that I carry, and then use the wire mesh enclosure on top of it, locking it all to the pole next to my hammock.

This was the first time I'd ever gone to such lengths, and it was as secure as my backpack is ever going to get under these types conditions. I figured maximum risk exposure warranted the best defense I could mount.

I breathed a sigh of relief. It was 1:00 in the afternoon. My hammock was in place, my pack secure, and a smile was on my face. Now, what to do with the next five or six hours…

Supply Run

I still needed to get consumables, and had read that the one item needed above all others on the trip was hot sauce—apparently the food served on board (lunch and dinner included in the price of the ticket) contained anything, except flavor. My grab-happy boat ticket vendor had also told me earlier in the morning to bring water.

The good thing about traveling with someone is that one person can do errands while the other guards the belongings. Even if you're traveling alone, backpackers who find themselves in the same spot on foreign ground have an understanding—I'm a traveler, you're a traveler, we can help each other out.

But I was alone, and needed provisions. I stuck around until three or four o'clock, observing the dock workers load cargo and waiting to see if any other gringos boarded. Amazingly, none did.

Let me repeat that, I was amazed, and rather pleased to be traveling on the tourist trail, but in a vessel with no tourists. I had popped into the Hotel Fortaleza and saw a dozen of backpackers scurrying this way and that, and to find none of them on my boat was impressive (especially since the woman who issued me my ticket was helping to cook lunch in the kitchen of said establishment).

I had noted the piece of paper in the hotel that described the different boat price fluctuations between the days of the week, direction traveled, and destination. My boat was not listed—neat.

I decided to roll the dice and risk leaving my pack alone on the boat while I tried to find a supermarket—success or disaster would be the result.

I returned from my outing about an hour later to find my pack intact and undisturbed. The number of hammocks strung across the deck was growing rapidly.

I had purchased five liters of water, five liters of diet soda, a few crackers, and hot sauce—an interesting combination.

Amazon boat water

I have since discovered that the water and hot sauce purchases were unnecessary, as this boat provides chilled drinking water (which to the best of my knowledge is simply filtered river water) and homemade hot sauce. My policy since 2005 has been if the locals are drinking it, so am I. I just ignore the occasional glass with floating green/grey particulates dispensed by the unit.

In the Company of Brazilians

The dock workers (who later became the boat crew) had put in a tough day, and I asked a man observing them with me (who looked like he knew a thing or two about such things) how much they were getting paid for such an intense day. BR$20, was his reply. Most of the world gets paid US$10/day or less, and this labor was no exception.

Goodbye Belem!

The boat was scheduled to depart at 6:00 on my original ticket, 7:00 on the new ticket received at the dock, and taking Latin Time into account, I wasn't surprised when we departed a little after 8:00. The engine roared and the illuminated skyline of Belém twinkled away into the darkness.

About three hours prior, a pair of backpackers appeared on the vessel. Women in their late-twenties, close-cropped hair, light skin. I would bet my backpack they're French. They'd already strung up their hammocks before I arrived, and had returned just prior to the initially scheduled departure to settle in.

I haven't talked to the pair, and probably won't unless they initiate conversation. My interest is in the nuances of Brazilian culture that I'm now completely engulfed in.

I've already got a very nice rapport going with the family behind me, the two teenagers hanging beside me (it's good to have extra eyes on my stuff), a woman and her twenty-something son down the way, a few of the crew, a handful of random guys, and some 21 year-old mommy (with a two year-old son in Belém) that keeps sliding me notes with "Eu te quero" written on them… ummm, I'll pass, sweetie.

It's going to be a great trip.

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