Friday, February 10, 2006

We'll All Float On

Rio Madeira, Brazil

The OC has a strong preference for surface travel. The cliche wisdom that "getting there is half the fun" may be sometimes true, but the related corollary that "paying through the nose to be stuffed in a hate-amplification tube and tossed through the air for a few hours really sucks" is almost always spot on. Brazil presents a severe challenge to our anti-flight stance. it is a big country and much of the interior can not be reached by road at all. The jungle has a way of swallowing transport projects. We met a mixed English/American couple in Argentina that live in Rio. They were of the opinion that the only way to get into the Amazon basin is by plane.

It turns out they were not correct. Where roads fail, rivers succeed. The paved highways coming from the south end in a town called Port Velho. It is a crummy little place famous mostly for drug running across the nearby Bolivian border. We stayed there just long enough to deal with Jason's little foot problem before boarding a boat for the 3 night journey down the Rio Madeira to Manaus - capital of the Amazonas province and the largest city in the area (1.67 million people) by far. The only place can go by bus to or from Manhaus is Venezuela. Roads to the south, east, and west are all impassable except to the hardiest of land vehicles.

It was not hard to get tickets for the trip. As soon as I showed my gringo face down by the docks, I was approached by an enthusiastic and helpful young man that spoke some English. He took me on a tour of the vessel and explained the schedule. It was Sunday. The boat departed on Tuesday. Surprisingly, we were welcome to stay aboard during the intervening two nights, but there was no food service aboard. Back in the "office" (most of a concrete building with most of a roof), he quoted me a price and made out a ticket. I am always a bit wary of laying out cash, but the sudden arrival of Jose (a Peruvian acquaintance from the bus from Porto Velho) and a reassuring flurry of Spanglish put my fears to rest.

We opted to stay in a hotel rather than start slumming it aboard ship. Our boat was laid out over three decks. The bottom was exclusively for cargo - in this case, lots of potatoes. The top was a mostly roofless space with a small bar, a TV and DVD player, and some plastic chairs. Passengers slept in the middle in self-supplied hammocks. Cargo space was limited to a row of slightly raised platforms that kept your baggage just above any water than may blow in from the open sides. It was all pretty basic and with limited security. We were not that anxious to give up our air conditioned beds and locked door for humid hammocks and chained bags before necessary.

Necessity struck on schedule on Tuesday afternoon. We lugged all our worldly goods aboard and tucked into a cheap lunch from a dockside restaurant. We made friends fast by handing out a few beers and showing off Jason's iPod. Things were looking pretty good until an hour or so before departure. What was a fairly crowded space suddenly became slave ship business class. Creative hammock hanging ruled the day as last minute passengers moved in. Both Jason and I ended up with neighbors close enough to sweat on. In addition to the bulging of the crowd, we were also treated to the first part of our soon to be daily dose of high-volume Brazilian pop music blaring from the ship's sound system. We got under way to the strained notes of Bahia's answer to Britney and with just enough extra space for one more bag of potatoes.

The cruise routine was pretty routine. Meals were served at 8, noon, and 6 or so. We ate family style in makeshift shifts at a small cafeteria. The food was filling, salty, and familiar. Coffee and bread made breakfast. Beans, rice, pasta, and some kind of meat made lunch or dinner. Time between meals was sent sitting around on deck watching the jungle slip by or napping in hammocks. Beer drinking increased throughout the day but never approached anything above "family barbecue" on the Boozing Scale. The toilets were predictably stinky but certainly not horrible and there was a shower available but I never made use of it. I figured that a bit of stink may help secure extra room for sleeping.

That strategy did not work. No odor of mine could overpower the death stench of the grim old lady directly forward of my berth. Once in your bunk, you could not move without kicking somebody. Since nobody can stay still all night, there was a fair bit of foot to head contact. A swift blow on one end of the ship could ripple along the length of the ship as each swinging hammock knocked into the next in a human-scale simulation of one of those executive toys with the iron balls that tap back and forth. It was also windy. And cold. And a bit wet. And sometimes the boat stopped in a port in the middle of the night and all the lights came on. I did not sleep well at all.

On day two an already slightly sour voyage passed far beyond its use by date when Jason's Pod and wallet went missing. The disappearance coincided with the departure of one funny-eyed passenger, so he rocketed to the top of the suspect list. Since we were far from land before the theft was identified, there was really nothing to do but stew with anger and feel stupid for not watching our things more closely. In this case, the Lonely Planet's paranoia was spot on.

On the last night, there was a post-dinner barbecue doled out in bite-size pieces and a bit of dancing. It wan not much of a party and far from enough to turn the voyage from a 3 into an 8. We retired early in anticipation of an early arrival in Manaus. One more restless snooze later, we pulled into our final port and walked into the grayest city in OC memory since Vladivostok. Our original plan called for leaving Manaus the same way we arrived destined for Belem at the mouth of the Amazon - a voyage of some 3.5 days. The discomfort and boredom of our first river leg was more than enough to overcome our distaste for (and relative expense of) air travel. We secured two one-way tickets to Salvador before heading off into the jungle. Sometimes getting there can half your fun.


Post a Comment

<< Home