Fond Memories of Brazil 2009: Manaus + The Amazon

Welcome to the first many “Fond Memories of Brazil 2009” posts, just in time for the World Cup! I’ll start each of these posts with some of my own thoughts on the city, then I’m going to include excerpts from my husband Aaron’s weekly emails to our friends and family that he wrote during the trip. To make these emails a bit more engaging, he wrote all of them in a mock Q&A format. (In other words, he just interviewed himself… which confused my grandparents a lot.)

One more quick programming note before we get started: At the end of our South America trip, we actually lost one of our digital camera memory cards. It. Was. Devastating. Especially so because we had already missed a few weeks of photos when our camera stopped working midway through Brazil and we found out the hard way that electronics in Brazil are outrageously overpriced. So that explains the lack of amazing photos to go along with these blog posts. Sorry about that!

Alright, how did we end up visiting Manaus in the first place? That’s easy to explain. My friend’s older brother had once told me that the ONE thing that he wanted to do next time he went to South America was take a hammock boat from Manaus to Belém. Because this friend of mine goes to South America a lot and seemed to know his stuff, we assumed that this was a “can’t-miss” activity. (Spoiler alert: we may have been wrong about that.) So we flew into Manaus with no plans other than to get ourselves on one of those hammock boats headed east.

Little did we know, this is what the hammock boats looked like  mik_p

Little did we know, this is what the hammock boats looked like: photo credit mik_p

Upon arrival at our hostel, we were happy to learn that they could secure hammock boat tickets for us the very next morning, so we only ended up spending one night in Manaus. Most of the time we just wandered around the city buying supplies for the boat trip and trying the local street food.

Aerial view of Manaus: photo credit Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Aerial view of Manaus: photo credit Neil Palmer (CIAT)

From what I recall of our quick Manaus experience, it just seemed like a typical big city… that just happened to be in the middle of the Amazon. Like if I hadn’t flown in and seen with my own eyes how much jungle and wilderness surrounded the city, I wouldn’t have been able to believe it myself.

Meeting of the waters: via Mariordo

The “meeting of the waters,” where the black Rio Negro meets the sandy Amazon: photo credit Mariordo

But unless you’re going for either 1) an Amazonian adventure, or 2) the World Cup, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out of your way to visit Manaus. I’m sure the city had a lot more to offer than what we saw during our short time there, but there were so many other cities in Brazil that we liked a lot better. And as for the “can’t-miss” hammock boat adventure down the Amazon? Well, I’ll let Aaron’s email explain our experience, then you can decide for yourself whether you’d be up for it:

Q: So you flew into Manaus, the capital of the Amazon region, a surprisingly big city. What will be your main enduring memory of Manaus?

A: Sadly, it will be the bus station. Let´s explain. Crossing into Brazil, I feel a constant, blinding, drowning sense of helplessness. I know I poke fun at our lack of Spanish skills, but we know enough to get around, to bargain, to ask questions, to instruct a cab driver, etc. In a Spanish-speaking country, I know we will not simply die in the streets. In Brazil, it´s not so much of a given. Everyone who tells you Portuguese is just like Spanish is LYING TO YOU. They may look similar on paper, but you will not understand one word anyone is saying, and they will not understand your Spanish. At all.

So we got off the plane in Manaus, and succeeded in getting on a bus from the airport to the main bus terminal, where we hoped to transfer to another bus that would take us to our hostel. We got off at the bus terminal … and stepped into … something. There was one huge line, leading up some stairs and into a building … and this line NEVER MOVED. We were there for at least ten minutes, standing in the same place. Buses constantly stopped, and people got off, but no one ever got on. And the people who got off just got in our line and stood there. WHERE WAS THIS LINE GOING TO?!? Some of the buses appeared to be heading where we wanted go, but the drivers were emphatic that we could not get on. I don´t want to be the ugly American traveler, but if there was ever one time I wanted to yell “Does anyone here speak English?!? Can anyone tell me what´s going on?!?”, it was this moment.

But we did not do this. We just found a cab, a metered cab! How sad is it that this genuinely excited me at this point? No haggling over the fare to a place you´ve never been, and could never even estimate. Anyway, this was a small victory.

Another small victory occurred at our hostel, where we found out that they sold tickets for the hammock boat to Santarem, halfway to the coast. No wandering around the docks looking lost for us!

Instead, we just wandered around town picking up supplies for the trip. Waiting in lines became a theme (ten-deep at the ATM! How can a city operate like this?!?). The map we had been given was useless (for instance, it had X´s that it simply labeled as “Tourist Destination,” without ever explaining what exactly the destination was. I guess you were supposed to just go there and guess. Anyway, we decided that was enough of Manaus, so we made dinner at the hostel (well, Ilana did, most of you know how awesome my cooking skills are), and waited for our hammock boat departure.

Q: Okay, but first, say one nice thing about Manaus.

A: Street food was great. Incredible meat on sticks. Usually, when eating kebob-type foods, there´s meat interspersed with vegetables, right? Not Manaus … beef interspersed with sausage! Now that´s how it´s supposed to be!

Q: Good. Now on to the boat. Were you and Ilana at one time hammock owners?

A: We sure were. These boats are bring-your-own-hammock. Simpsons fans will be excited to hear that Manaus actually has a hammock district. We got some very comfortable ones, though the dyes of the hammock bled through to our clothes, so much that we had to throw them away. My skin is still a little yellow.

Q: Let´s see if we can´t consolidate a little. You took two hammock boats, right? One from Manaus to Santarem, and one from Santarem to Belem. Just talk about them in general.

A: Well, there are a lot of hammocks stuffed in there. Like, if the person next to you rocks, you rock too. Very little English spoken, though everyone was very friendly to us. Really, time just ceases to be a measurable thing, and you just fall into a kind of daze, like a sloth or something. Maybe you spend fifteen minutes getting a drink of water. You´ve got the time. Also, for the most part, the boats smelled much better than you´d think they would. Brazilians apparently all shower at least three times a day.

Q: Your guidebook said the first boat would take 30-36 hours. How long did it actually take?

A: 25 1/2 hours. Which was wonderful. Except the guidebook also said meals would be served. They served exactly one meal, about 24 hours into the trip. Ilana was, let´s just say, not real excited about this development, to the point where, when we saw people eating, instead of being excited about the prospect of food, she was more furious. “Where did they get that food?” like it was some kind of conspiracy to keep sustenance away from us.

Q: And your guidebook said the second boat would take 34 hours. How long did THAT one take?

A: 47 hours. Which was miserable.

Q: So, all the negative things you want to say, those are about the second boat, correct? Would you like to vent a little?

A: I sure would. Those of you who want to have the impression that our trip has been nothing but sunshine and happiness, skip this paragraph. Okay, here goes: I said before that the boats mostly smelled good. Well, the exception to the mostly part was that the bathrooms and the kitchen smelled IDENTICAL, this rancid collection of smells that turns my stomach even now just thinking about it. As a result, I avoided both places as much as I could for the entire trip, which did not lead to an incredible amount of comfort.

Also, Brazilians do not really have inside voices. They have incredibly loud conversations in very close quarters. Meanwhile, Ilana is so scared of us being perceived as the loud, obnoxious gringos that she now speaks at a volume that I cannot understand at all. Since I´m kind of a mumbler to begin with (shocking to a lot of you, I know), this made conversation between us almost impossible.

Did you know that children cry in different languages? I did not, but crying children in Brazil sound nothing like crying children in America. It´s like they scream. They sound almost like wild birds. Also, Brazilian babies are HUGE. It´s possible they are plotting some kind of takeover.

When our boat pulled away from the docks, everyone from the boat next to us jumped on, people throwing bags and jumping through windows and everything. No idea why this happened. And our boat was full to begin with.

Also, apparently headphones have not made it to Brazil, so those people who have MP3-capable cell phones just play them as loud as they can, that tinny sound now available for everyone. Even if all you have are thirty second snippets of songs … just go ahead and play them. Even if all you have is the factory collection of ringtones … let´s hear them again. To be fair, one guy had New Order´s “Bizarre Love Triangle” … that was cool.

Finally, the woman closest to me had a laugh that I can only describe as the sound of an entire species going extinct. Seriously, it sounded like way more than one animal dying. It sounded like the brief seconds right after the meteor hit, with dinosaurs staggering around wheezing and hacking and spitting, fighting to get air in and ash out … it was wonderful, and just got better the later at night it was.

Q: Okay, now say some good things about being on the boats …

A: Honestly, the Amazon is amazing. I mean, it´s miles wide at times, and this is a river. It has 17 percent of all the fresh water in the world. The temperature on the boat was comfortable, a nice breeze when we were moving. We saw one of the elusive Amazon river dolphins (Ilana spotted him). Sunsets are incredible. So are the stars. So are thunderstorms. It´s fun to look at isolated lights deep in the jungle and make up stories about what it could possibly be. I got a lot of reading done. Little Brazilian girls love (LOVE!) Ilana. One of them had an uncanny ability to belt out mid-90s American country hits (Shania Twain, Faith Hill), though she didn´t know any English. Saturday night there was an impromptu church service, with a lot of spiritual singing, and everyone laughed good-naturedly at the confused looks on our faces. Little village boats paddle out, latch themselves to our boat, pirate-style, and try to sell fruits. We got to work on our tans. And, also, now that it´s over, we will never have to sleep in a hammock again.

Q: You kind of slipped into more negativity there at the end. Stop that. Anyway, you stopped for three days between boats in Santarem. What is there to do in Santarem?

A: Leaving. Leaving is what you do. You catch a bus to Alter Do Chao, a fishing village about an hour away with these incredible pristine beaches, some so narrow that there´s beach on both sides, which I had never experienced before. Alter Do Chao was probably the height of our isolation. The book said 7,000 people, but I don´t know where they were. They place was a spectacularly beautiful ghost town, with most businesses closed and no cars on the streets. Apparently there´s a tourist season here, and this was not it. We were actually asking people if they spoke Spanish in hopes of being able to communicate. Never thought that would happen a month ago.

We found a hostel where the owner spoke French, which was incredibly helpful, as it meant at least Ilana could communicate. Also, they had a Portugeuse Water Dog, which made Ilana even happier. And we spent two days on the beach. There´s not really much else to say. They sold a soda called “Flesh”, which sounds incredibly appetizing. At dinner, we ordered a pizza, and they brought it to us with a bottle of katsup and a bottle of mayo, because everyone knows gringos enjoy putting those things on a pizza. And we saw a junk truck piled high with old furniture, mattresses and stuff, and, instead of trying everything down, they just had a dude laying spread-eagle across the thing, just trying to keep everything in place. If I could have one picture of a thing we were not able to take a picture of, it would be this guy.

And it was a great two days. We watched sunsets from the docks on isolated beaches, interrupted only by these weird little schools of fish that skip themselves across the surface of the water. And then we got back on the boat. Which, as you read above, had its ups and its downs.


Next up: fond memories of Fortaleza!


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