Amazon River boat trip

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Journal of boat trip down the Amazon River


Journal of a four-day boat trip from Tabatinga to Manaus the Capital city of the Amazon River.  Tabatinga is on the border of Brazil, Columbia and Peru right in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. 


Wednesday 15th September 2004


Arrived at the boat Oliveira in the Tabatinga port after a two minute precarious ride on the back of a motor taxi.  My back pack was heavily laden with 8L of water, 35 bananas, 10 oranges, 6 apples and 4 packets of biscuits.  The motor taxi driver struggled to control the bike as we made the short journey. 


I had visited the cargo boat earlier that day.  It is necessary to talk with the captain before boarding and buy a ticket so he can make sure papers are in order and check you have been vaccinated against Yellow Fever.  Oliveira was one year old, steel hull and fastest in its class cutting the 4 day, 4 night journey down to 3 nights 4 days.  Constructed in typical Amazon style, she had a pointed front with a curved rear, three stories high, with each level open to the elements and the essential bar on the top deck.  The port was rammed with people, loading cargo onto the boat.  Empty beer bottles, mattresses and everything imaginable were put onto the boat in a disorderly fashion.  I boarded on the 1st deck clambered over the cargo lying over the floor ducked under the hammocks and climbed the stairs.  I was amazed to see a spiders web of colourful hammocks and could not believe there would ever be a space for me.  Walked around the boat and with a bit of imagination found a place right angles to all the hammocks on the edge of the boat.  A position empty only due to the locals thinking it was too cold.  Perfect for me I chuckled, it is never cold in the Amazon! 


Three blasts of the whistle and we set off late.  Gorgeous views of the river.  Arrived in Benjamin Constant an hour later where more people boarded the boat.  Hundreds of hammocks lined the boats hull.  People followed each other like sheep and carried on hanging hammocks in the same spots.  Two person high, three person high, could they really fit any more people on the boat.  Of course they could I thought we are in Latin America.  I was so pleased I had the position I was in, strung out by myself, lots of room and able to watch the river go by in my hammock.  As we left Benjamin Constant, I looked out into the river and saw the fish jump as the pink dolphins chased them down the river.  Night fell as I drank local beers on the top deck with only a few people.  I could not understand why the people don’t get out of their hammocks and come up.  Were they too afraid!


Thursday 16th September 2004


I was awaken in the middle of the night by heavy  banging on the door of one of the cabins.  The lights went on and police filled the boat.  The police inefficiently went to one end of the boat and started asking people for identity cards and searching all the bags.  No dogs, no technology, one hour passed, two hours.  As the search continued, random people were scurried off the boat for questioning and boxes lay open on the side of the dock full of Cocaine as the Police bullied the people into a confession.  The Policeman did not like it when I tried to be helpful and told him its easy, all you need to do is finger print the people, take a sample of the box and you will know who it is.  He angrily replied, this is the Amazon, not Scotland Yard, we don’t even have a computer out here.  Watching the commotion continue I started to see the biggest Police brutality I have ever seen.  All the women were escorted out of eye shot and the man started screaming as the Police beet a confession out of him.  As the man confessed, the Police smiled and the boat passengers cheered and clapped.  Thinking later, the Police had achieved nothing but raise the price of cocaine on the streets.  The Police had a man in jail, but what really had they achieved.  It was the perfect situation to catch more people.  Why hadn’t the Police followed the man and arrested more people.  I thought wisely and prevented myself from suggesting it to the Police.


Morning came and I chatting with an English guy Joe, he was better equipped than the ships captain with a GPS and $7.50 map of the Amazon!  Periodically the captain would come out and ask where we were and what speed we were doing.


I had a beautiful day lounging on the boat I noticed that the scenery never changes other than the occasional houseboat, Indian camp village, Oxbow lake and more dolphins.  At 2pm in the afternoon I had server stomach aches after the meal, thought it was either the food or the water I cleaned my teeth in that morning.  Crazy Joe left the boat at 6 Pm to go camping in the jungle by himself, I hope the batteries don’t pack in on his GPS.  At night lay out under the stars, my stomach was hurting, I missed home and my family.  Many people had already left the boat that morning and there were now not very many people sleeping.  Went to bed early and had a great nights rest.


Friday 17th September 2004


Morning came and my stomach hurt only a little and was very happy it did not hurt more.  Think I will be alright!  Do not know where I am on the river, but judging by the time, we had done 12 hours since Joe had left the boat at 12 mph, 144 miles.  Looked over the edge of the boat, the Amazon looked beautiful and the engine water outlet was producing perfect rainbows.


When you are on a boat for this amount of time, you start to get to know the people you are travelling with.  Take Marco for example, just finished studying and is now travelling to Manaus to help pay the hospital bills for his sick mother.  He proudly told me that his father travelled there 14 years ago as he could not earn enough money in Peru, the boy has not seen his father since.


(Met Marco a couple of days later with his father in a bar in Manaus.  He was in tears

and said sadly my father is a drunk, I want to go back to Peru)


Marciu the Peruvian guy lives in Lima.  He has worked in a hotel for the last five years and saved enough money to go on holiday.  The police cannot believe his story about only going to Manaus for a short holiday and rigorously search him every time they board the ship. 


Javier the Columbian guy makes balloon animals unbelievably quickly and sells them on the street and also made a telephone out of two cups and a string for the children to play with.  There was Jo the girl who owns her own business, buys clothes in Manaus then catches the boat straight back to sell them on the Market in Tabatinga.  The Peruvian hippy girl makes jewellery and catches boat all over the Amazon to sell.


All about the boat there are small groups of families.  The women attended to their children constantly.  I have never heard a child scream or cry out of any of the children.  The women lie in the hammocks all day whilst the babies lie on top of them and breastfeed when they are hungry.  Peoples eyes are glued to the television as it stays on constantly all day long.  Nobody complains or steps up to change the channel when the boat moves off course and the satellite dish needs to be adjusted.  They just accept that the boat has moved off course from the satellite and just stare at the blank screen until the picture comes back or the boats crew adjust it.  People clean the boat proficiently with the brushes which lie around, but they have not sense of ecology and thoughtlessly through plastic cups, cans and plates over the side into the river.


Upstairs lies empty chairs and tables apart from a few people playing dominoes.  I sit up with the Italian guy, unable to believe why the people do not come up.  I can only imagine its because they have to look after their babies, frightened or are carrying amounts of money to buy goods to sell in Manaus or their luggage is so precious to them they do not want to loose it.


There was the Dutch girl who was recommend to leave Guiana by the British Consulate because she exposed child prostitution and took photographs of illegal transportation of animals.  The British Consulate had already bailed her out of jail twice before and could not protect her life any more.


Paulo the Brazilian guy who nastily cracked his head open on the boats roof as he ascended the stairs to the top deck.  With the boat being two days away from medical help, one of the ladies who had just finished making a marvellous jumper for her niece, sowed up the wound with accuracy of a surgeon with her left over thread.

Chugging along the scenery never changes, its like a vast array of trees.  Looking into the forest you do not see primary forest as the loggers took the easy to access trees first.  Every now and again, the mighty trees of the primary jungle can be seen and the true rainforest we imagine grows around.  Its strange to imagine a place that only has two seasons, low river season and high river season.  When the water reseeds great vast areas of mud banks appear which the Amazonian tribal people use to grow rice.


Its amazing watching the people and laughing at their antics.  A couple of minutes ago 12.05 the boat engine slowed down.  I looked over the edge and a small boat had pulled along side and was loading large 1.5 meter long fish into our boat (Tambaqui and Piyarucu) for 7 USD each, big enough to feed a hundred people.  Fish after fish, one at a time.  Another small boat pulled up hitting the first boat and all the men fell down to the delight off all the passengers.  Last night another small boat pulled up, a girl boarded the boat whilst the driver hung onto the side of out boat.  Trying to save fuel he cut his engine, not very sensible on an 8 Mph river.  When the girl got back in the boat, he had trouble starting the engine.  Pull after pull he could not get it going.  Eventually our boat got board of waiting, sped up the engines and started to pull away.  The man could not hold on any longer and frantically tried to push the boat away.  As the boat passed the water out let, the girls screamed as they got a shower of hot dirty engine cooling water.


Brazilians are very tall and well built people.  The girls always wash their clothes every day and hang them on the roof whilst the men seem to do nothing.  As we arrived into each port the people celebrated their arrival in true Brazilian style by letting fire crackers off in the boats roof.  Little dangerous to my liking so retreated downstairs.


The day ended with the most marvellous Amazon sunset and the sun finally peaked behind the line of the trees.  Darkness fell as we roared into the night.  The television blared out, the stereo played full blast and the people swing lazily in their hammocks.  On the top deck, I sit and watch the half moon looking as its about to move into solar eclipse.  Stare up at the Milky Way and think about my family, life and work.  Thoughts blend together on the river and time passes surprisingly quickly.  I will go and buy a beer.


Saturday 18th September 2004


Awoke to the groans of people lying in their hammocks.  Thank god I had not eaten the fish.  Suspected it had not been cooked properly, I left it on the side of my plate and just ate rice.  Looked out into the river, it seems larger and wider and I could see larger boats moving up and down the river.  I look around the boat and see the young mother, only 19 years old lying in her hammock with her baby, she never leaves the hammock and never stops smiling at her three year old daughter.  The small boy with brilliant white teeth comes up and cheekily asks me for some toothpaste.  Huge smile when I put some on his brush as though he has never cleaned his teeth before.  Spent the rest of the morning trying to educate the people on how to get over food poisoning.  Drink loads of water and just eat rice!


Dinning in the boat is very orderly and at peculiar times.  Everybody lines up in an orderly fashion and when space clears in the dinning room, the cook calls everybody in.  Usually only about thirty people use the dinning room and the rest line up at the kitchen door with their own personal plates for food, so they can eat back at their hammocks.  Once again, I do not understand why people go through the effort of washing their own dishes when there is a dinning room where somebody does it all for you.


As we approach Manaus, five hours away, the river becomes lake size.  The shore line is populated with houses, and farms and the jungle has been cut away.


Darkness fell as we arrived at the junction to Manaus.  The moon light twinkled on the rivers surface.  A fire was burning on the rivers bank, a lighthouse to mark the turning.  The lights on the boat shone brightly like a cruise liner and we pulled into the port of Manaus.  A great trip, most leisurely way to experience the mighty river and the jungle scenery.  The richest freshwater ecosystem in the world.


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