Brazil, beans and broccoli

Trip Start May 01, 2005
Trip End Mar 25, 2006

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Flag of Brazil  ,
Friday, July 15, 2005

When I was little, I imagined the Amazon to be a fast-running, narrow river full of rapids and waterfalls and heavy with noise. But itīs not. Itīs wide and brown and flat, flanked by dense green forest, the water dotted with old tree trunks and clumps of foliage.

The first boat I took, an 8-hour speedboat from Iquitos in Peru to Tabatinga on the Brazilian border, was fine, in fact it was even better than a bus because it didnīt show any crappy movies. The second boat, a slow passenger boat from Tabatinga to Manaus, couldn't have been more different. By the time the boat left the port, the first and second decks were teeming with people and hammocks. My hammock was wedged between a Brazilian family - 7 children, 4 adults, 5 hammocks - and an older man. I broke the ice with the children by immediately falling backwards out of the hammock and pretending that Iīd done it on purpose. The boat was incredibly cramped, and in some places you had to crawl on the floor to get through to the toilets. We stopped a few more times, and more and more people got on. People slung their hammocks above and below me and I found myself getting a bit tetchy, but then I thought, hang on, Iīm in a hammock going down the Amazon. Thatīs not too shabby.

At midnight on the first night, the police boarded the boat and for three hours searched everyoneīs luggage for drugs (police 2, drug smugglers 0). On the second night, the toddler sleeping above me fell into my hammock. For those of a nervous disposition I wonīt go into what she tried to do, suffice to say she thought I was her mother. The only similarity I had with motherhood at that moment was nausea. I spent my days playing with the children next to me (they didnīt quite understand the concept of Incy Wincy Spider but they seemed to like it anyway) and trying unsuccessfully to spot dolphins. Food was served in shifts and started very early - breakfast at 5.30am, lunch at 10.30am and dinner at 3pm. I was dreading to think what four days of rice and dodgy beans cooked in river water would do to me, but surprisingly the toilets on the boat werenīt too bad. Iīve seen worse in France.

What did worry me was the over-crowding on the boat. When we stopped briefly at a port, a speedboat came too close and our boat lurched horribly. People fell out of hammocks and started screaming. When he saw my fright, the man next to me said that he was an air force pilot, and I thought he was going to impart some technical knowledge about why the boat couldn't possibly topple over. He said that everything would be fine as heīd been to see a fortune teller who had told him that he would die in a chair and not a hammock. Phew. Unfortunately she didnīt predict that some thieving tosser would nick my shoes from under my hammock that night. I spent the rest of the trip obsessively scrutinising peopleīs feet. We finally arrived in Manaus four days later, where I immediately booked into a posh hotel for some hot water, telly and air-conditioning. I spent both mornings in Manaus in tears, first tears of joy when London got the 2012 Olympics, then tears of horror as I watched the terrible events the following morning. Being away from home at that moment was pretty awful.

I had initially scoffed at the guide books that suggested single women travellers wear wedding rings to ward off unwanted attention. Not any more. A chap in Iquitos, for example, asked me if I was single and when I politely replied truthfully, he proceeded to beg me to stay there longer to spend time with him. Hmm, let me see. Age? Over 50. Occupation? Waiter. Chances? Zero. By the time I had left the second boat in Manuas, I was describing my wedding dress in detail. It didnīt seem to matter that Iīd pretty much worn the same clothes for four days, had had no sleep and was a bit jumpy about the boat capsizing, nothing seemed to stop the blokes on the boat from trying it on. I suppose I should have been flattered, but the fact that the boat started selling beer at 7 oīclock every morning may have had something to do with it. Iīm adjusting to travelling on my own again, but sometimes I do feel a bit of a singleton. Sitting on my own in a deserted restaurant in Manaus, I felt very self-conscious as people walking in the street outside kept staring in at me. After lunch, I walked outside and realised the windows were mirrored and all those people had just been vain bastards.

From Manaus, I decided to forego the boat trip in case I lost another pair of shoes and instead flew to Belem. The flight was fantastic, the views of the Amazon just stunning. From above, the rainforest looked like an enormous field of broccoli. But going to Belem was a big mistake. It was the first place so far in my trip that I have hated - too chaotic, noisy and hot. I got stuck there for four miserable days while I tried to get a flight to Sao Luis, where I am now. Sao Luis is a beautiful old town with narrow cobbled streets and colonial buildings. Thereīs not a huge amount to do here but wander around the town and relax. On the evening of the 12th of July I sat in a beautiful old square drinking beer and listening to a man with a guitar sing īThe Girl from Ipanemaī, and it felt like a good way to spend my birthday.

Brazil is so very different from Peru and Ecuador, more expensive but with a more laid-back feel to it. Iīve yet to meet any other English-speaking travellers in Brazil, and havenīt actually spoken any English for the past fortnight. I canīt speak Portuguese and so mumble in Spanish, hoping to be vaguely understood. My sister Julia arrives in just over a week (I canīt wait!) and she wonīt be able to shut me up. I havenīt seen any English books for ages, and am getting quite twitchy without any reading material. Newsweek just doesnīt do it for me. Although travelling in South America has opened my eyes to a life outside of London and work, there are some things a girl just canīt do without - Julia is bringing Heat magazines, books and gin.
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