When I read that Amazon riverboats are "never comfortable", it did not sink in.
How tough can sleeping in a hammock be?
On the bus from Oiapoque on the French Guiana border to Macapá on the Amazon (which cost R$57.00 or US$28.50 for the thirteen-hour ride on 532 kilometers of mostly dirt), Bob Geiman and I were glad we were not putting our wives through this trip. It was not a fun way to spend a night, but at least the buses were running regularly during the rainy season (February 2007).
We never did learn how cold it could be on a bus. To Macapá it was, so the next time we dressed a little warmer. It was colder and each time we piled on more clothes from our tropical wardrobe, it got colder still. If only I had known the Brazilians were going to be wearing their leather jackets.
On this ride we were introduced to a typical Brazilian dinner of beef stew or chicken, rice and beans, cabbage and farina, a gritty substance the locals pour on everything before thoroughly mixing it in. Figuring it might be a malaria prophylactic or a vitamin additive, we followed their example.
At least we had a rest stop every three hours. The places offered banheiros, to which we collectively headed in a stupor to relieve ourselves, free hot, sweet coffee, and a meal for US$3.75 or less. The stops saved my life. "My back side is so sore," I complained, "I may suffer terminal brain damage."
We were resigned to the fact that travel takes time in Brazil. We had had twenty-five hours in Oiapoque, which was not a town where there is lots to do (we were not prepared to make an instant action to take the bus south). We had to buy some reais to pay for the ticket. We figured we would take the morning bus, but there wasn't one. In Macapá we needed a night to rest, just as well we had two days there. It took 50 minutes to do ten minutes work on the internet, and two hours to change money at a bank when we could not find a câmbio.
Using a phone card was often torture. The first big deal was finding a phone that worked. We soon learned that only the ones with people waiting really worked. Then we had to figure out the code to use (not printed on the card in any language). Often calls were terminated after a few seconds; we were charged for the call. However, when we did not get cut off, the calls were cheap enough.
We found one travel agent open on that Sunday, bought a ticket on the B/M São Francisco de Paulo 1°. The next day we made our way to the docks twenty kilometers away, across the equator. When we boarded, we were led to the upper deck. It was nothing like Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic, but being six feet, I could stand up straight, if I placed my head carefully between the rafters. The lower deck was not so commodious.
We took turns buying hammocks and provisions. I went for the cheapest hammocks at US$7.50 each – a mistake. They were rough and scratchy, which on top of the other problems, were hard to get used to. Bob bought fruit, snacks and water.
We explored the boat before it filled with people. We found toilets that doubled as showers, the bar, cramped stifling passenger cabins with fans priced four times hammock class, and the water cooler with a communal jelly jar on top.
We passed on dinner, afraid of what it might do to us. Bob said it looked good. Neither of us could stay away from the boat's food indefinitely, it did not seem to cause any ill effects, even if it was cooked in Amazon river water, thick with silt and very brown.
Sailing almost put us into shock
By then the hammocks were slung so tightly that any time we hit the wake of a ship, we all swung in unison. The exhaust from below, on the port side, made a huge racket, and the drive shaft sang a weird tune. We were somewhat sheltered from the deafening music in the bar as we were up forward, while the bar was aft. I would have enjoyed the Brazilian pop music if it had been played at a lower volume.
At 10:25 p.m. the bugs attacked suddenly, and in earnest. Insect repellent did the trick. We used much less than we thought we would have to during the trip. After forty-four hours on the river, we arrived in Santarém. We felt we had lucked out, as we had not been able to buy a ticket through to Manaus. On arrival we did buy a ticket on a boat leaving three days later.
We stayed at the New City Hotel, where the girls insisted on carrying our little bags upstairs. Bob protested, but cooled it when I said, "Let them be, they're Amazons."
The nine channels on the television were in Portuguese, a language in which we were gaining some proficiency. On the boat there had been two French speakers and one who spoke Spanish. On the next boat, there was one English speaker, a Brazilian who had learned from books and the movies, and had never met an English-speaking person until we came along.
Santarém was a nice place to unwind. By asking around we found the Lavanderia Storil. Had we handed in our laundry at the hotel, it would have cost ten times as much as going to the laundry directly. We found terrific pizza at the Restaurante Moscote on the waterfront. That night the television entertainment included "Big Brother Brazil," which had no Julie Chen and was less structured. I read Graham Greene.
Bob had taken off by air for a day. When he got back, he told me he had seen one sign in English: "Do you remember when sex was safe and flying was dangerous?"
Our boat to Manaus, the B/M Leão IV, had 50% more capacity than our first boat, seemed to be uncrowded. However, we did not sail until six hours after the scheduled time, by then every space was crammed. The aisleways disappeared under the spread of hammocks, which were slung in three layers in places.
While Santarém had been very quiet at night, here we had the bar on a deck above us, with an extraordinary capacity to crank out the noise. Add earplugs to the list of necessities.
I finished Graham Greene and turned to Jean Paul Sartre's play, "No Exit," which described his concept of hell. Sartre got it wrong. Hell is the B/M Leão IV, where, when you awake in the middle of the night, you have to push the guy next to you away so you can lower yourself from your hammock – carefully because there is someone's stomach beneath your foot – then crawl on your belly down the once-upon-a-time aisle under the hammocks the length of the boat to the lavatories, then stand with your legs crossed because they are full of people taking showers. On top of that, my knees had gotten sunburned that day, adding to the pain.
Our thirty-six hour trip was not going quickly. I stupidly said, "At least we'll get full nights of sleep."
Bob retorted, "You mean we'll get two nights of hammock time."
"Yes, I apologize for not stating it more carefully."
"By now you should know better." We had paid US$50.00 for our ticket from Santarém to Manaus, and for that we got a sixty-hour trip with food and a place to "sleep".
There were pluses. In the rainy season the overcast sky kept things to a mild 85° F. most of the time. The crew was constantly busy keeping the boat clean. There was no jelly jar on the water cooler. A plastic cup dispenser was in constant use. Sadly, many of the passengers simply tossed them overboard.
We eventually arrived in Manaus 24 hours late, in time for the last night of Carnaval. However, we got hit by a monsoon. The next day the city was virtually closed.
It cost us almost US$75.00 each to go by bus from the rodoviária, the bus terminal, in Manaus to Caracas, from which we flew onwards.
Do I recommend the trip? Sure, if you want bragging rights and seeing how the jungle along the Amazon is disappearing. Bob is talking about sailing downstream from Pucallpa to Manaus. At least he's talking about downstream. I'm not talking about going with him, at least not yet.