Dawn on the Amazon

Trip Start Feb 16, 2013
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Amazonas,
Friday, August 2, 2013

The Amazon rainforest - a legendary place of wonder, a massive expanse of sometimes impenetrable jungle, filled with some of the world's most exotic creatures and plants, home to the world's largest river, producer of 60% of the world's fresh water and 20% of its oxygen. We expected this part of our trip to be hot, dirty, and slow. We were not disappointed.
Our route took us from Santa Elena de Uairen in Venezuela through Boa Vista down to Manaus, a sprawling Amazonian hub in the middle of Brazil. From there, we took a seven day boat up river to the tri-border cities of Tabatinga (BRA), Leticia (COL), and Santa Rosa (PER), followed by a 12 hour fast boat to the Peruvian city of Iquitos, hung out for a while, then another slow boat for four days to Yurimaguas. Then we booked it into the mountains for some fresh air.
One thing that really struck us was the incredible differences in culture between the three countries mentioned. The towns of Leticia and Tabatinga touch each other, with nothing but a small booth and a couple speed bumps to divide them, yet the change is so drastic, there's no way you can't notice that you've stepped into another country. Besides just the immediate change in language (even the taxi drivers in Tabatinga don't speak Spanish nor do they speak Portuguese in Leticia), the street layout is different, restaurants' menus and street vendors reflect their country's cuisine, and the type of products offered changes (we were happy to have Colombian beer again). Not to mention that crossing over the river to the Peruvian town of Santa Rosa, you change time zones.
Our time in Manaus was spent walking around the city drinking exotic Amazonian fruit juices, eating large portions of meat at a Brazilian Churrasqueria, and getting prepared for the long boat trip. We had bought hammocks right before leaving Venezuela, but we still wanted to pick up some books in English (since we only have one kindle), drawing paper, needle and thread to fix all our clothes, and of course some snacks, fruit, and bug spray. We planned to spend a few days in Manaus, but the boats to Tabatinga only left on certain days of the week, and we were forced to leave days earlier than intended.  Before committing to a boat, we paid a guy to take us out to where they were all anchored, to compare and decide for ourselves. One ship was large, clean, and seemingly organized with a fairly good guarantee of having less people aboard. The other was smaller, with more passengers, but the top deck was a bar/hang out spot where they blast music, and the crew was much friendlier and spoke a little Spanish. The choice was clear.
We boarded the Alfredo Zanys and strung our hammocks up as far away from the bathrooms, kitchen, and roar of the engine as possible. Since Abby boarded before Mike, who went to get more fresh fruit, she was able to use her charm to get her 300 Reais ($135) passage for free. The only thing to do now was to sit in our hammocks and do nothing for a week. The days were hot but we could usually find a breeze to keep us cool, and the temperature dropped at night to a comfortable bundle-up-in-your-hammock sleeping temperature. Each morning at 5:30 we had bread, butter, and some kind of tasty filling with sugary coffee. Lunch was pasta, rice, soupy beans, and some kind of fish, meat, or liver plus cool-aid at 11:00, and either soup or another helping of pasta, rice, beans, and meat for dinner at 5:00. All the meals were very tasty, served family-style in a small room that sat twelve at a time, so we ate in shifts. Typically after lunch was nap time, and after dinner many people went upstairs to listen to music or watch Brazilian soap operas on the large projector screen. We preferred to hang out at the front of the boat, gazing at the stars and the milky way and the lights of small villages on the banks of the river. Abby befriended all the children on board (is it cheating if you keep giving them candy?), and shared nail polish and colored pencils and paper with them. By the end, all the kids were smiling every time they saw her, and they were calling her "profesora" and "menina," which as it turns out just means "girl" in Portuguese, but the boy who called her that did so in the most endearing way and he was the most adorable little guy, that she loved every second of it.
As days began to meld together, the only indication of time being the  passage of the sun and the calling of meals, the sunrises and sunsets became a highlight. Each one unique, they were dramatic and put us in one of those peaceful contemplative moods. Especially at dawn, when the birds are waking up, the trees have a soft pink glow, the villagers lean in their windows and doorways greeting the morning as they likely do every day, and the reflection of oranges and pinks in the ripples of the water leave you mesmerized and grateful to be alive.  Occasionally some river dolphins would sweeten the morning as well.
Our visit to Leticia, Colombia, was supposed to be very short, but we were reminded how much we enjoy Colombian beer, food, and culture, so we stayed for a few days. We met a couple friends and spent some time relaxing at our wonderful hostel (why we felt the need to relax after doing nothing for a week on a boat, I have no idea). We took care of our exit and entrance stamps, which required a shocking number of taxis and boats, officially leaving Brasil and entering Peru, though we were staying in Colombia. The two notable things we did in Leticia were an amazon jungle trek, and watching the birds fly into the main square at dusk. Our two jungle guides belonged to local Amazonian tribes and were able to show us many trees and plants with medicinal purposes, pluck new exotic fruits for us to try, and explain their way of life to us. The tribes around here are spread out into various communities, and even span across borders. For ceremonies and special events, the many communities join together in the maloca, the large circular single-room structure that holds the hundreds of members and contains sections for dancing, sleeping, cooking, and storytelling. After visiting the maloca, we swam in the river and failed miserably at fishing.  But the most interesting part of Leticia is the hoards of birds that flock to the square, squawking in masses to settle in the trees at night. It was insane (think Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds), the most impressive urban wildlife show.
Having at least three more days of long, slow river travel, we decided to take the fast boat into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. We left in the middle of the night and twelve hours later were in the sprawling, dirty, noisy city of Iquitos, which we visited three years ago. The difference between then and now is only our perspective on the place. Last time, the smelly, hot city flooded with the roars of mototaxis and the poor district of BelÚn, with the biggest traditional market in the Peruvian Amazon, were well beyond our level of comfort. We spent most of our time at the ex-pat establishments and stuck to the touristy areas. This time, we wanted to get deeper. We took public transportation, wandered around the market (making sure to wear shoes and hold our breath discreetly), hired a local to take us into the town of Belem, and were much better at bargaining. The difference that being able to speak the language makes was enormous and we found ourselves really appreciating the gritty jungle town and all its quirks. The zoo, called Quistacocha, was impressive, and we saw jaguars, capibara, tapirs (they're huge!), friendly monkeys, anaconda and river boas, paiche (the biggest Amazonian fish), crocodiles, and ocelots.  We also took a side trip to monkey island, where Abby decided to volunteer while Mike spent a few days on his own in Iquitos.
From Iquitos we took a four day boat to Yurimaguas, which turned out to be much different from our Brazil boat. Brazilians, as it turns out, are very hygienic. They line up to brush their teeth as soon as they wake up and after meals, they shower every day, and always smell and look good. A crew member swept and mopped the deck each day, there was always toilet paper in the bathrooms and soap at the sinks, the food was bottomless and they provided us with cold drinking water and coffee at all times. The cooks even offered to clean and fry up the two gorgeous catfish that Mike bought from a fisherman - for free!  None of these things would even be considered on the Peruvian boat.
The Peruvian boat, Eduardo II, was not pretty, nor did it seem to be very clean. But we slung our hammocks up and tried to take up a lot of space so others wouldn't crowd us too badly. It didn't work. There were approximately 170 people at any given time on the boat, though people left at each port and others came on. Vendors would also board at each stop, selling soda, fish, ice cream, and balls of rice with indistinguishable chicken parts inside wrapped in banana leaves. Other than these items, the available food was laughable. Lunch and dinner were lots of rice and one or two measly pieces of chicken or tough beef and a spoonful of broth. Breakfast was two pieces of bread and some kind of hot liquid - like a mix between oatmeal with no oats and rice pudding with no rice. For each meal, a bell would ring and people would rush to line up to fill whatever plastic container they brought with them.  Luckily we found out just before boarding that we needed tupperware and utensils. And it's a good thing we brought fruit and snacks, and water and toilet paper. The bathrooms on board were gross and there was always a line which most people cut anyway, and it didn't take long for the entire boat to smell like pee. There were many children on board, but not nearly as well behaved as the Brazilians, and they were always crawling around everyone's stuff and rolling around on the filthy floor. The woman in the hammock next to Abby hit her two kids often and let them pee on the floor and (sometimes) wiped it up with a t-shirt, which she bundled in a pile next to her. Mike had an entire family sleeping underneath his hammock, spread out on a blanket. Young men seemed to have 'who can play the most annoying music the loudest' competitions, and the one next to us kept playing the Titanic song over and over, telling us it was his favorite song. Okay, but do you have to play it while we're on a boat? To make matters worse, Mike was sick most of the time and didn't sleep well at night. But we got a lot of reading done, made a few friends, and learned to despise a couple new songs.
The Amazon was initially the most intimidating portion of our trip, and yet the part we looked forward to the most. It's gritty, hot, and buggy, but not without charm (and lots of mototaxis), and you quickly learn the only way to get through it is to go with the flow. The Amazonian culture is very different from what we've seen on the coasts and in the mountains, and we appreciate the opportunity to be able to immerse ourselves in each. It was interesting to compare the riverside villages on the Brazilian side with the Peruvian, and the differences in the food, hygiene, and apparent social and educational level of the two boats was drastic. We read many books, ate plenty of new fruits, played with kids, learned some basic Portuguese, and intensely enjoyed laying in hammocks all day long. When you add the clear, starry night skies and the incredible sunrises and sunsets, I'd say we found a little slice of slow-moving heaven. 
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