Sleeping with tomatoes: Upstream on the Amazon

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South America » Brazil » Pará » Santarém
April 4th 2011
Published: April 4th 2011
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I’m currently sitting on a boat in the tiny port of Santarem, a town in the state of Para on the banks of the Amazon River, halfway through a 6 day boat journey that is taking me nearly 2000kms from Belem on the coast of Brazil to Manaus in the midst of the jungle.

It’s an epic voyage which has challenged every sense I possess … the noise of the constant forrá music blaring out of the distorted speakers for 15 hours a day, the smell of the blocked toilets and full septic tanks, the taste of the daily repetitive meal of chicken, rice, pasta and potatoes – all in one dish.(its carbs all the way to the toilet), the touch of other people as they bang into you lying in your hammock like an anthropoidal Newton’s Cradle, the views of the mocha coloured waters of the mighty Rio Amazonas stretching out before the bows of the boat. All senses are being stimulated, provoked and taunted….

The Amazon is the largest river system in the world containing one fifth of the planet’s fresh water and about 80,000sq kms of navigable channels and I am having some serious time on it. A journey that not many gringos get to make…going upstream on the Amazon. Halfway through the trip I can understand exactly why many would fly instead. This is a journey like no other I have taken. Forget the Navimag crossing of the Chilean fjords, the Polar Star crossing of the Drake Passage to Antarctica, the cruise down the Egyptian Nile or The Beagle’s circumnavigation of the Galapagos Isles. Aboard the 27m long Nelio Correa, I am seeing a side of Brazil that is pure grit n’ grime, chaotic and claustrophobic.

The boat has three levels. Level 1 is the storage area for the 20 tons of tomatoes and flour we are transporting to Manaus. The entire deck is stacked high - from floor to ceiling - with boxes of green tomatoes. Many fell out of the containers as they were being loaded and are now trampled underfoot and starting to rot in the humidity of the space so the entire deck resembles a putrefying compost heap. The olfactory delights of Level 1 are complemented by the ablutionary facilities. These reek of decaying faeces and stale urine. To add insult to injury, the kitchen is also on Level 1 although it is probably quite easy to get the cooking and the ablutionary facilities mixed up judging by the colour of the river water that our daily dose of chicken is bathed in… a dusky brown that runs crimson as the guts and giblets are disgorged.

We are all ‘strung out’ (literally!) on Level 3 - the top level alongside the small bar (hence the continuous music menace. Discordant, distorted, Brazilian rap with un-rhythmic beats, pumping out at a level to destroy one’s eardrums). On the second level of the boat hangs the same density of hammocks (approx. 55 hammocks in an area 15m2) but taken up by locals rather than gringos and a large number of small children. Their mini havaianas (Brazilian flip-flops) hang over the edge of the hammocks as they mewl and whine continuously (I don’t really blame them…id mewl and whine for a bit if it was socially acceptable). The family suitcases and meagre possessions are gathered around them, sandwiched between the vents of the engine and the communal showers that are IN the toilets. Hence, the second level is less noisy than Level 3 but darker, hotter and smellier.

However, there are also a number of highly prized private cabins on this level. Now call me a Princess but I decided to indulge myself and share a cabin upgrade with Tim and Pip so I could guarantee my own cess-pit of a toilet, air-conditioning and a bed – albeit every other night as I’m rotating with Pip. This has come at a steep price but it is worth every real as it has given me some much needed personal space totally absent in the hammock areas. Hours of Grey’s Anatomy viewing on the netbook! Over the course of the journey to date many people have got sick (the food is cooked in river water) and the distance between hammocks is so minuscule, you are repeatedly disturbed throughout the night as people struggle to navigate themselves to the bathrooms amidst the hanging forest of sleeping humans. Combine the lack of space with the noise and the billowing gusts of cigarette smoke from the bar and I promise you, the nights in the hammock are not something I look forward to. I have no qualms about upgrading, as plush as it may sound, it’s a minute cabin with river water to wash in and a toilet that bubbles sewage. A diamond tread steel floor and a bed that slopes on an angle so I roll towards the metal wall…. but it is private and away from the masses and has made the journey bearable….so there! In fact, I’m not sure whether I can cope with another night in the hammock on Level 3 and am seriously contemplating moving down to the Lower deck and spending the night with the tomatoes…..that’s how bad the forrá and the lack of space is. I’d rather sleep with a load of rotting vegetables!

Negative descriptions aside, it’s still quite a buzz to think that I am journeying up the Amazon. I feel a little like Stanley as he travelled through the Congo in search of Livingstone. The jungle comes right to the water’s edge …. Palms, rubber plants and all manner of other flora dip their branches into the river. Exposed roots, darkened with past higher levels stand proud above the waterline. A few people have been fortunate to spot pink river dolphins but generally the river is not yielding much animal life…yet. In places it’s very wide, the murky waters stretching indeterminately width wise whilst in other places, the channel has narrowed considerably and we cruise past wooden homes on stilts seeing locals drying their washing or fishing from the porches of their rickety buildings.

Along one stretch of river, frantic children in banana shaped boats paddled themselves out into the midstream to catch up with us. It’s customary for gifts to be thrown out to the kids who are literally living in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from civilisation. I had nothing to throw out to them but one little girl had propelled herself so fast and looked so becoming that I lobbed a couple of green tomatoes in her direction. The first hit the water with a splash (and floated), the second hit her fair and square in the chest….. It was both hilarious and terrible at the same time.

Dawn comes quickly and night takes over equally fast…..when the weather has been hot and sunny, the sunsets over the forest, flooded pasture land and river are just beautiful. The sun sinks rapidly bathing the river in its amber glow, lighting up the sky in a myriad of yellow and orange and then darkness engulfs the boat and you suddenly feel your ankles being bitten by nasties. My feet look like they have been in a full on war with the entire insect race of South America… scarred, scabbed and the recent bites are white blotchy welts. I’m now munching on Doxycyclin as we are officially in malaria areas for some time. Thankfully, I don’t get any side effects from it, unlike some people who suffer with skin rashes and high sensitivity to the sun. On days where the sun fails to show, it has poured torrential rain and the blue canvas drapes that hug both port and starboard are pulled down to enclose the decks and protect the hammocks from the storm. The horizon becomes an indistinct blur with the tumultuous rain attacked waters merging into the sky. At times like that, it’s great to have the cabin to escape into.

Before we set sail, we were in Belem for a couple of days…. A city full of faded colonial grandeur from its rubber-boom heyday but now a shadow of its former prosperous self. After the rubber market crashed in the late 1930’s, the city entered a long decline but apparently it kept afloat on the back of Brazil nuts and the timber industry. Parts of the city now have been gentrified to within an inch of its life….notably the Estacao das Docas where we found Belem’s microbrewery. Glasses of mellifluous ale served with exotic names such as Amazon Forest, Amazon Negro and Amazon Weiss. The wheat bear got my vote and much imbibing went on.

Elsewhere, poverty screams at street level….. the markets are full of vendors hawking live animals, dead fish and fruits of the Amazon Jungle...cupuacu, tapereba, bacuri…..fruits you have never even heard of are served whole and fresh or liquidised as pure wholesome juices. But what stuck most in my mind in Belem was the smell of the city…a lethal combination of rotten vegetables, decaying fish and piss. A combination so potent, so nasally offensive I actually couldn’t help but vomit in the street one day. It was beyond repulsive. The smell hit me in the back of the throat and before I could engage my brain to avoid the repugnancy I was gagging and emptying the contents of my stomach on the cobbles.

Having left the beachside idyll of Canoa Quebrada (where I last wrote), we had some very long drive days travelling through fairly innocuous towns with stops at Parque Nacional Ubajara where we hiked through the forest accompanied by the rustle of monkeys in the trees, through Teresina, the hottest state capital (average temps are 40 degrees) and into Canauba Country where we visited Parque Nacional de Sete Cidades – famous for its eroded rock formations and cave paintings. Nowhere really moved me or inspired me to want to write and describe. I fear a touch of traveller’s blaze creeping in….

However, here on the Amazon I am assaulted by superlatives…. The boat has yet to depart Santarem as we have been loading up on more goods to fill Level 1. I need to go and check my hammock is secure and stake my patch of turf with the tomatoes. Bolshily, I have unplugged the speaker and have been able to write this blog update in silence without the auditory assaults we have been subjected to for the past 3 days. 3 more days to go until Manaus where I can just cut n paste and hit send. We have one day in the Amazon state capital before venturing deep into the jungle for 4 nights…. And then of course you’ll be hearing from me again.

Hope April is full of daffodils and crocuses for y’all.

Hannah x


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