March 25, 2007

Upstream Downgrade
Rio Amazonas, Brazil

A questionable change of river transport.


The sun had yet to rise on my third morning as I took down my hammock and packed up my gear. The Rodrigues Alves V would be soon be pulling into Santarém, about half way upriver, where I was expected to disembark and relocate to another vessel (that would take me the rest of the journey to Manaus).

I didn't quite know what to expect. Would the boat already be full of people with the best hammock spots taken? How long would we be docked in Santarém? Would the pair of French backpackers aboard my current ride (that I hadn't spoken to) also transfer over?

I was amazed at the lack of pushing and shoving to get off the boat once at dock—very uncommon. I hopped off, and with a few helpful fingers pointing me in the right direction, I quickly walked over and boarded the Leão IV.

Aboard The Leão IV

I was the second person on board, with no one scurrying behind me. Things were unusually calm (and empty). I climbed up to the middle deck of the wooden ship, and setup my hammock as far towards the bow as I could, next to a wall. The spot chosen would be better than average for privacy, but I had a feeling there wouldn't be much air moving past this particular point of the deck.

Bow comparison

This boat is small. I smell trouble. There are dead cockroaches all over the place—better dead than alive, I suppose. There's a schematic of the boat framed above me, and I'm very much surprised that the designs were approved in 2005—this boat seems much older.

No backpackers in sight—a good thing—but I have no idea how long the boat will be at dock, and I'm obviously early to the party. I have a feeling they're going to cram just as many people onto this vessel as my previous boat, and it must be less than 2/3 the size. Space issues are going to be troublesome.

Snap-Happy Craig

I quickly snapped a few photos shortly after the boat transfer (still not knowing how long the wait would actually be), during which time I ended up exposing my 10,000th image. Interestingly, Canon cameras don't seem to be capable of a five-digit number sequence, so like the odometer on a car that has hit an excessive amount of distance traveled, I've rolled over and returned to 0001.

I keep about 80% of the photos that I take. Around 25% of that figure ends up on the gallery of this Web site. Lots of memories.

Amazon River Wi-Fi

Several weeks ago my buddy Andy left a comment that he'd give me US$25 if I found Wi-Fi access on my boat trip up the Amazon. Well, look what I came across…

I was swinging in my hammock during the wait at the dock, playing a game of Sudoku on my PDA, when I spontaneously decided to enable the wireless Internet receiver on the device and do a search. I expected nothing, and was quite amazed when a network popped up. I could connect, but couldn't use the Internet, as the signal required authentication that I didn't possess.

Andy has been using his laptop and a cell phone (with GPRS) to blog very successfully from remote areas of the world—no Internet café required. Judging from the number of text messages being sent by the Brazilians, mobile phone coverage along the Rio Amazonas has only been available in the larger towns. Even so, there would be enough access time to check e-mail or upload a post as we chugged past a cellular tower.

I think Andy's right—a cell with GPRS capabilities in conjunction with a PDA or laptop is a wonderful way to stay connected in regions of the world where finding Internet access is problematic. But the cost can be prohibitive in some places, such as West Africa, where he's currently traveling (and would be paying US$10/megabyte transferred if it wasn't for a promotion he was taking advantage of).

Prehistoric Amazon Fish

As I continued to kill idle time at the dock, I meandered over to the little souvenir booths to have a peek at the junk and toy with the bored workers. Amidst the table of lackluster trinkets a little section was dedicated to some of the fish of the Amazon.

Preserved with some sort of brownish lacquer, the candiru (catfish) and infamous piranha caught my attention. The catfish was armored like nothing I've ever seen before, looking like a marine warrior from eons past. The sharp barbs on its tail could easily slice a hand open, or perhaps sever a finger.

The piranhas came in various sizes; all sporting mouths full of sharp little triangular teeth. I read that there are at least 50 different species found in the rivers and tributaries in and around the Amazon—some of which actually eating only seeds and fruits!

Many Amazon tours will take folk fishing for piranha, and are caught easily enough—if you're a local or guide. Using just a string with a hook and small piece of beef, the travelers that I've met jest that they've lost more meat on the end of their hooks than consumed from fish caught.

Although a bit small and bony, I think I'm going make a point of trying to find a place to sample the meat of a piranha in Manaus, as I'm particularly curious about the taste of this fish.

Star-Filled Sky

We finally departed Santarém in the late afternoon, a solid 9 hours after arriving. As we left the city behind, the abrupt and highly visible confluence of the creamy-brown Amazon River and the reddish-black Rio Tapajós appeared in front of us. The bands of different colored water flow side by side for a few kilometers before the waters mingle.

In the western sky there is a large star in the early evening that's as bright as the moon and visible even whilst the sun is still setting. I wonder if it's some planet in our solar system that's closer than normal. I often wish I knew more about astronomy, but tend to have difficulty picking out constellations and the such. Maybe dad knows…

Night Vision

The captains of these boats seem to prefer to navigate the river by moonlight—the bridge is completely dark. Boats of this size have no radar to assist with collision avoidance; they use a mounted spotlight instead.

Every 45-seconds or so the captain will turn on the light and have a quick look around the bow of the vessel. There are fine (water?) particles in the air, normally unnoticed, but are illuminated in the strong beam of light. The first time I saw this I instantly thought of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The golden beam of light, visible trail and all, cuts through the darkness—its gaze darting this way and that—revealing a circular glimpse of the environment around us.

I'm sure they could afford a small radar system, but then how else would the captain keep himself entertained and awake at night?


Being on this boat is giving me a massive headache; I'm chewing aspirin like they're orange tic tacs. I keep slamming or scraping my head against the ceiling everywhere I go. I can't walk upright any place but the uppermost deck (where there is no roof); I'm too damn tall.

I didn't have the perception that I was much taller than the majority of the population, but this boat is eye opening. I need another good two inches of clearance.

I'm missing the Rodrigues Alves V. It's uncomfortably crowded on the middle deck of the Leão IV, with next to no place that I can get away for a moment of privacy. There are over a half dozen babies and small children on this level, generating noise that makes me wince and clinch my teeth with every shrill shriek and moaning cry. The top deck sports a speaker as tall as me, pumping out noise pollution at a level that is surly off the volume dial—I can't be up there for more than a minute or two when it's on. The bottom deck has no place to sit (only strung hammocks) and is flooded with the fumes and decibels generated from the engine.

I had my headphones in, trying to watch the sunset from the bow (in an attempt to create an artificial escape from the environment for a moment), but the chatty Brazilians will wave a hand in front of my face to get my attention, and try to strike up a conversation through my plugged ears. Normally this level of outgoing behavior is cherished, but not when I'm without the ability to find solitude.




Craig |

March 29th, 2007

Andy cracks me up — $25 in my PayPal account.

Tom Heimburger

April 1st, 2007

That "star" low in your western sky at sunset is Venus.


Craig |

April 1st, 2007

My father is amazing.

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