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Published: March 27th 2012
Because of the strong current, the long trip up the Amazon, halfway across Brazil, took about three days. The speedy trip back to the ocean was only two days. At one point Captain Patruno proudly announced our speed at 25knots (29mph) which is really flying on this ship. While cruising in this part of South America we watched the movie “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” It is a pretty good depiction of the atmosphere here in the Amazon. I also read the book “Fordlandia.” This chronicles Henry Ford’s attempt to build a utopian workers city in the heart of the jungle. It was a monumental failure but I learned a lot about rubber plantations and how good intentions can go awry especially when attempting to cross cultural, social and geographical boundaries.
On our way back to the Atlantic Ocean we stopped in Parintins to see the Boi-Bumba show. This rivals Rio’s Carnaval as one of the biggest celebrations in Brazil. Thousands of visitors jam this small town every June to see the fabulous costumes, the dancing, singing and the parades. Almost as exciting was the tender ride to the pier. The current was so strong that the
tenders were going almost sideways as they crabbed their way to the dock. I was amazed that the tender crews were able to successfully get 500 passengers back and forth without incident. Those bosuns really know their stuff.
Another remarkable phenomenon in the Amazon are the clouds. It seems that especially at dawn and dusk, clouds were at their most imposing. Probably due to the heat, condensation and evaporation, they are big and fluffy and very colorful.
At our last Amazonian port of Santarem we witnessed some pretty impressive rain clouds and the resulting deluge. We took the shuttle bus into town but decided to forgo exploring on foot as we would have been up to our waders in water.
Upon reaching the Atlantic we had to go several hundred miles out to sea before we saw blue water. The daily outflow from the Amazon is more then the next eight largest rivers combined. It makes the mighty Mississippi look like a babbling brook in comparison.
After a sea day we anchored off infamous Devil’s Island which lies six miles off the coast of French Guiana. When the French government decided it wanted to populate this
Big and good eating!
oversea colony, they bribed citizens with promises of food and free land to make the ocean passage. About 11,000 brave souls accepted the offer of a free ride. Within six month 9,000 settlers had perished due mostly to tropical diseases. Then the French decided to turn the place into a penal colony and this is where Alfred Dreyfrus and Papillon ended up. The movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman depicts quite graphically the inhumane conditions on the island. We watched "Papillon" right before we arrived on the island just to get in the mood. It is a great movie.
The penal colony was actually made up of three islands. The prison’s administrative center was on Ile Royal, Ile St Joseph housed the dangerous convicts and Ile du Diable housed the political prisoners.
Now, no one is allowed on Devil’s Island although you can easily see the Dreyfus shack from Ile Royale. It only took a few hours to hike around the whole island. The surviving buildings include the insane asylum, solitary confinement cells, the hospital and the remains of the guillotine. We saw the leg irons that were used at night to chain the prisoners to their
beds. There is also the cemetery for prison officials and their families only. Prisoners’ bodies were disposed of in the sea. This “chum” encouraged the sharks to patrol the surrounding waters looking for a free lunch and thereby discourage escape attempts.
There is now a modest hotel in the center of this island filled with mostly French tourists. The only room in the hotel that is air-conditioned is the gift shop which strangely enough sells expensive French lingerie! On our hike we encountered an agoutis which looks like an animal designed by committee—part kangaroo and part guinea pig—a big rat on stilts. We also saw peacocks, macaws, parrots and heard some monkeys scrambling through the brush. Mango trees and colorful bougainvillea covered the hillsides.
Against all odds, Papillion did finally escape the island using a raft constructed of coconuts and he ended his days in Venezuela. We merely had to hike back down the hill to the tender landing in order to leave Ile Royale. It is amazing to think that such a beautiful island was the site of such extreme misery.
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