Week 25 - Manaus to Belem

Trip Start Aug 01, 2007
Trip End Dec 19, 2008

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Where I stayed
Hotel Continental

Flag of Brazil  , State of Maranhao,
Monday, February 4, 2008

Jan 18th - Manaus

Arrived in Manaus exhausted from the bus ride and at the un-godly hour of 6am. This is quite a bustling city at the centre of the Amazon (quite an odd feeling...surrounded by thousands of miles of forest but in a big city). Couldn't find any budget hotels in the guidebook so going against my better judgement and instincts I asked the cab driver to recommend one (cheapest in the book is $25).Just as I should have guessed I was taken to a fairly dodgy hotel with the very misleading name of Hotel Continental (it certainly wasn't continental and come to think of it, it may not have even been a hotel). At $18 a night it was fairly cheap (I later discovered a few hostels with dorms at $10...doh!).

After a swift pint of coffee courtesy of the manager just to get the brain cells working I went to check on an Amazon jungle tour. The manager of the Continental (nice fella) almost refused to let me leave without getting a cab (yep, the internationally renowned Continental was slap bang in the middle of the dock area and a tad dodgy for a lone westerner. Course it's kind of ok in the daytime but after 8pm the whole place changes character. The manager was just being cautious. As a compromise he called a budget tour company (Gero tours) and 10 minutes later Gero himself turned up.

There were two tour options; Option1, $50 a day but is only 30km from Manaus and less likely to see wild animals...Option 2, $70 a day but is 100km away and more wildlife. As I wanted to see something kind of real I chose 2. I went for the 3 day tour and it all kicks off tomorrow morning at 8am.

After a brief kip at the hotel I decided it was time to break free from the SS Camp Continental and dashed out past Gruppenfuhrer Francesco (the manager).It was pretty rough and dusty by the docks but after walking around I got my bearings and made my way to the nicer part of town for some sightseeing.

Had a look at the famous Opera House (hard to imagine...in the middle of the Amazon...and even more weird for me was that Fatboy Slim had a gig on there tomorrow. Paid Gero the tour money and mentioned that I needed a hammock for my Amazon River trip to which he responded by driving me to the hammock selling area, bought me a coke and dropped me back at the hotel (what a service). Snuck out again for dinner and a few beers and got back just in time before the 8pm curfew started.

Jan 19th - Amazon Delta

Today begins the Amazon jungle tour and so armed with an armful of biscuits, water and insect repellent I met the rest of the group at 8am in town. There was Eugenie (a friendly Austrian girl and her German boyfriend Christian, two funny English girls; Meera and Dijlay and our guide Joshua. After a 30 minute drive to the port area it was onto a small boat to get us across the river. Stopped in the middle for a while and watched the meeting of the rivers' Amazon and Negro. Quite an obvious colour difference between them (Amazon light brown and Negro black) but where they meet there is no mixing, just a jagged line.

Then a hair raising high speed drive in a combi van to another boat (a small wooden canoe) and so started the real trip into the Amazon. 40 minutes of amazing views; rainforest, reeds, birds, sardines and dolphins hopping about. After settling in and testing my hammock and scoffing a delicious lunch it was time for our first recce trip with the group. The canoe we used was so precarious I thought it would tip at any moment.

During the 3 hour boat glide and with the help of our indigenous guide Francesco and our main guide Joshua we managed to spot loads of wildlife on our first day (pink dolphins, a baby grey dolphin, piranha, sardines, turkey vultures, red macaws, toucans (boy am I glad I finally spotted one of those) and squirrel monkeys. Also spotted a bird that I can't remember the name of but apparently it's the scourge of the bird kingdom here. All the other birds (even the bigger ones) are scared of it because if it doesn't like the look of you it'll drive you nuts for hours on end by flying right up to you, making loud shrill noises then flitting off (repeat 50 times and imagine how annoying that is).

At one point Joshua asked if anyone wanted a swim and just to hop in if we felt like it. At first I thought this was some kind of test (bloody piranha and alligators everywhere) but trusted the guide and like a true Aquarian hopped in. It was very refreshing but I was well para about what was lurking below.

During the boat ride back saw a beautiful sunset of vivid colours and a huge sky. Dinner and a few rounds of shithead to round off the evening. At 10pm the generator gets switched off so an early night for everyone.

Jan 20th - Amazon Delta

Early, hearty breakfast then it was time for a rainforest walk. Nothing prepared me for the amount of Mosquitoes everywhere (millions of the buggers). Even with a long-sleeved top, socks tucked in to trousers, a hat and gallons of DEET mosquito repellent the little shits still got through. It wasn't a tough walk but because it was well humid we all sweated loads. The problem with that being if you douse yourself in repellent after 5 minutes it would wash off in streams of sweat...and that's when the mosquito air force would really strike. No area of the body was safe from them; eyelids, inside ears and nose, through socks, trousers and shirt. These bastards had feeders made of titanium, I swear to God. Poor Meera got stung right in the corner of her eye...well painful looking.

Saw loads of rainforest plants, flowers, fruit and other goodies; Quinine bark (used in Tonic water and has a Malaria treating property), the bark used as the main scent for Chanel 5 and Poison, a fruit that looked really tasty (bright red and yellow but highly poisonous), Brazil nuts (in its original form coming from a coconut-like shell and once hacked open there are around 20 neatly intersected nuts..my favourite nut by the way). Saw a few animals around; Squirrel monkeys, Leaf Frogs (really hard to spot...and yes they look just like leaves), a huge Crab spider (has 10 legs, hairy and the size of my hand) and at one point in our walk Joshua sprinted off into the forest like a man possessed. We thought he'd gone mental or something but it turns out he was scaring a Wild pig away (they can get very aggressive and if you get attacked the best bet is scrambling up a tree like a rocket.

Back at base and exhausted from it was time for lunch and a siesta. Managed to swap my precious and newly finished book City of God (shocking book and arguably better than the film) for The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad).

This afternoon's adventure was Piranha fishing so armed with some homemade rods and cups of fresh meat we set off in the dugout canoe. 15 minutes into the ride the skies opened up and we were forced to take shelter in the local pub (a wooden shack built on the side of the water). I say pub...it was really just a room with a pool table, some music blaring and a few lashed up locals prancing around.

Back to the fishing. Piranha fishing is pretty straightforward; hook the meat, drop the line in the water and tug quickly at random times. Most of the time the meat would be snatched from the hook and disappear within seconds. I got 2 catches in the end but only tiddlers so they were chucked back again. Francesco and Joshua on the other hand caught loads. The prize for the biggest catch went to Joshua who caught a whopper. The fish in question was tossed to the back of the boat for Francesco to look after but being slippery things he dropped it and it landed just below my feet (I was wearing sandals at the time) and at one point flipped itself so high it nearly grabbed me by the bollocks (I nearly forgot where I was and jumped out of the canoe).

Back to base and our freshly caught Piranha were found on our dinner plates for tonight's meal (pretty delicious but a tad bony). Had a good laugh with Meera and Dijlay and a joint travel venture may be on the cards (really good girls). Tonight, although I paid for hammock sleeping I snuck into an empty bed and had a blinder of a sleep.

Jan 21 - Amazon Delta

Last day of the Amazon today and felt a bit gloomy. The group was trying to convince me to stay another day (quite successfully too) but in the end my thoughts on budget got the better of me. We all hopped on our familiar canoe and headed out to a local family house to get some kind of idea how the locals live. The family house was a wooden house built on stilts (preventing flood damage). We sat down and Joshua explained some of the details of their way of life: main food is Manyok which is supplemented with fish or meat. If necessary fish is sold to get more Manyok. Couples usually have five to ten kids. A village has roughly 50 people in it.

At 2pm back at base it was time for goodbye hugs as I was going back to Manaus. Will hopefully meet up with the 2 girls at Carnival.

After numerous van and boat trips I arrived back in Manaus and was met by Gero. He dropped me back at the tour office and said I could sleep there for the night to save some money (result with a capital Ree). Was also invited to a family dinner with his wife and had some tasty beef curry.

Jan 22nd - Manaus

Had to get up well early so the office could open up at 7am. Leaving my pack there I headed off into the labyrinthine streets near the docks to see when the next boat leaves down the Amazon to Belem. I was hoping there would be one today but the next one due to leave was the NW Santerem (a sturdy looking ship but a tad frayed round the edges). I bought my hammock class ticket straight from the captain ($90...saved myself $40 by doing that). As an additional bonus I could sleep on the boat tonight and save myself more hotel fees. Also, its recommended that hammock spaces are reserved (by simply hanging it where you want at least 6 hours before the ship leaves) otherwise you could end up right next to the toilet or a door.

So after saying adios to Gero and his great hospitality I trundled off to buy a hammock, some emergency food and water, then made the good ship my home for the night. There were about 20 other people with the same idea and I spent a pleasant evening chilling and swaying on the hammock and chatting to my new neighbours. The only drawback was a 8pm curfew in the dock area so everyone had to be in the ship by then. Dinner was a very basic bit of bread, tinned tuna and tomatoes and I watched the port activity and stars. There's a big cruise ship here in port with streams of old tourist coming and going.

As I lay in my hammock dropping off I thought to myself...this is going to be all right...a very relaxing trip (sigh...how foolish I was...).

Jan 23rd - Amazon River

The day the fine ship NW Santerem sets off. I felt well slept and in good spirits waking at 5.30am. Then at 6am the hordes started coming and to my horror I could see any spare space disappearing like a flash.

The ship has three floors; lower level (2nd class hammock space and storage), 1st level (1st class hammock space and cabins), 2nd level (1st class cabins...for the losers really). Word spread that we were shipping out at 12 instead of 4pm so good spirits all round. By 11am the place was heaving with hammocks and some in just the stupidest positions (across windows, in front of doorways).

Also on the scene now was Kommandant Gertrude who was in charge of hammock spacing (she took no prisoners). A frail looking old lady but she had balls and would shout at the burliest fella and rip his hammock off its line if she didn't like it.

Quite a mix of people here; families, couples, young, old and loads of Spanish tourists for some reason. At 11.30 3 Yanks on motorbikes rolled up and to the dismay of all aboard they were to be loaded onto the boat. It took 10 people and 2 hours to finish this mammoth task.

I have only slept one night in the hammock and honestly can't even think about another 4 days of it. Well, I'll have to. The hammocks have no space between them so no proper diagonal sleeping is possible and if one of my neighbours so much as breaths it vibrates throughout the line. This kind of life really isn't for the claustrophobic or those in need of personal space.

The afternoon went pretty quickly as we chugged along between the Amazons forest either side of us. Even at this point the Amazon is very wide. Shared some biscuits and coke with my hammock neighbours (and vice versa) but my sorry excuse for Portuguese put a halt to any real conversation. I'm going to make a valiant effort to learn some of it as quickly as possible.

Dinner was the usual Tuna and biscuits (the boats included meals don't start until tomorrow) and then a 5 minute military assault course through hammock rope and people just to get to my hammock for sleep. Tonight I predict a dream about being a tinned sardine.

Jan 24 - Amazon River

(sigh) the life of a tinned sardine is a harsh one. No sleep last night. During a late night stop more people arrived and slung hammocks everywhere, blocking off windows and doorways. I was so wired last night that around 2am I had a feeling my hammock had grown wider so muttering a quiet hurrah! I slid my upper body across to get comfy. A big mistake...it was my neighbour's hammock that looked kind of like mine. So at 2am most of the hammock sleepers were woke by the sound of a thud and the shout and moan of a tired English fella falling onto a heaven sent suitcase (would have been a hard fall otherwise). Of course on the way down I nearly took my neighbour with me and swore blind to him (as best I could) that I wasn't trying to sneak into his hammock (very embarrassing night and everyone had got up to watch these shenadegans).

Red faced I clambered back into my hammock making a mental note to move places when the opportunity arises.

At 5.30am the ship was abuzz with activity as screaming kids (the scourge of the hammock world and families woke up to the next day (what the hell are they getting up so early for). I felt really shitty this morning as I munched on my breakfast roll and drank coffee and thought and laughed about this whole situation. Then I had a kind of epiphany (must be over tiredness) but I realised then this was a unique experience, not hugely enjoyable yet but special anyway.

My fellow hammockers are a really friendly lot, especially when they recognise you as sharing the hammock room. As for scenery there isn't much to see really much to see because the rivers so wide. Most days as I stand on the ships rail all I can see is loads of water, trees in the distance and a lot of flotsam in the yellow waters.

The highlight of this morning was watching a cool young dude with headphones on stumble coming into the hammock doorway and bouncing off hammocks to end up in the same place again (funny to see it live).

I'm using this time of chilling to do some travel planning for my next steps of these travels. At some point I'm going to have to fly in Brazil (it's just such a huge country...same size as the US (without Alaska of course).

Lunchtime was a monster queue for our first proper meal (40 minutes queue but worth it...the foods really good). Then on returning to my hammock I realised there was more space so I moved my hammock and had a siesta. Was woken up when my new neighbour, a young fella I have nicknamed the elbow kid kept elbowing me in the face (not intentionally). After about 5 times I lost it with him and hurled abuse (I shouldn't have really) to which he just grinned but stopped.

At one of the smaller stops an ambitious fella decided to go shopping on land but taking too long he came out onto the dock to see the ship already leaving. Everyone on deck was egging him on to run and jump but he just stood there looking helpless and waving his arms in the air. Fifteen minutes later a small motor boat taxi pulled up with the sheepish fella 20 Reals out of pocket for his small shopping trip. This was the afternoon's entertainment and is still being talked about in the evening.

Crap, have just heard we won't be arriving in Belem until Sunday (a day later than we thought). Sweet Jesus, can I keep my sanity. There is growing unrest on the ship and talk of taking control of the good ship and throwing the captain overboard (just to alleviate the boredom).

Tonight's main event was dinner and a passport check at a small port. All the tourists had to get off the ship and all the locals watched us from the deck and had a good laugh watching us get checked.

The plan for the next week is survive this trip then head to Salvador for a day or two then RIO!!!!! for the Carnival.

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