Right before we left Porto Velho, the boat really filled up. Before I knew it people were stringing their hammocks directly above me and directly below me. “Are you kidding!?” I thought. No, not kidding. Apparently you can fit nine people into a space seven-foot-tall, six feet wide, and maybe seven-feet deep. Unfortunately, Pat and I are night-owls, and so we were the last ones to wiggle into our spaces, which meant absolutely no room. (The girl above me basically slept on top of me all night.) We restrung in the morning so that if we had to have someone above/below us, it wasn ´t an unfamiliar butt/back/head/foot. Space and individualism are so highly valued in the U.S., that it ´s quite a change being here where everyone shares everything. Although it takes some getting used to, I actually prefer it. It ´s way more friendly and warm, and when you ´re not expected to “succeed” and have all your own things and own space, you never worry about it and you have nothing to guard or protect. Also, the boat trips between cities always take 3-5 days, so for sure by mid-day #2, your neighbors have become your friends, and the whole thing turns into one big party/sleepover. Writing in my journal also invoked plenty of attention; I made plenty of new friends and had more conversations (chock full of sign language of course) in one hour than I had on the rest of the trip!
Pink dolphins in the river were a highlight of the trip (for real… pink river dolphins… flamingo pink!), as well as all the time we spent hanging out on the top level bow (the boat had three levels), not to mention all the beer and cocktails. Surprisingly, we never got bored. It ´s so nice to sit on the bow and watch the forest fly by, basking in the sun and cool breeze, and there ´s always some relaxing to be had in your hammock (not so many neighbors during the day).
The meals were monotonous but delicious. Beans, rice, farofa, veggies, and hunks of beef or chicken were presented at each meal. And breakfast was the usual bread, butter, and coffee. We would soon find out we were being spoiled (see next blog).
Something that I found absolutely appalling was the standards for dealing with trash. Brazilians may keep themselves super duper clean, but what they do with their trash is horrifying. Almost all of it went straight into the river, even when a person was standing right next to the garbage can. It ´s like putting all the trash in the same location doesn ´t even occur to them. And it ´s the same on land. It seems like no one even looks for a trash can. If they finish their drink, they just throw the cup/can/bottle in the gutter. Done with your chips? Toss the bag over your shoulder. It just upsets me, because most of the perceptions of the United States that I have encountered in my travels are that the U.S. is this incredibly rich, pristine paradise full of mansions will rolling green lawns, etc. I think the visual pollution of trash is a really powerful image, and we don ´t have it. Except for really big cities like downtown New York, Chicago, L.A., every place else in the U.S. is super clean. But I feel like the perception is, “Oh, you lucky, privileged rich people who get to live in pristine, clean places where all the trash is picked up.” Because here, all the towns have people whose job it is to walk around and pick up trash. But the reason everything is so clean in the U.S. is because we don ´t throw trash on the ground in the first place.
I ´m not really saying what I mean. It just makes me mad because I it seems that the perception is that the pristine condition of 90% of the U.S. has to do with money, and I feel like that ´s just not so. It ´s a cultural thing. It ´s not clean because we pay for it to be clean. It ´s clean because our culture teaches that throwing your trash on the ground or in rivers instead of finding a trash can is lazy, pathetic, and wrong. And don ´t think they lack for service to empty the trash cans all the time. All those people that spend their days wandering around with brooms and trash pans would probably much rather be gathering up sacks of already collected trash.
Anyway… As we approached our destination (Manaus, the biggest port city 1000 miles upriver from the Atlantic on the Amazon), we got to see the “meeting of the waters”. It ´s really cool. Manaus is where two rivers come together. One is called the Rio Negro (black river) and one the Rio SolimÃµes. The black river really is black as a result of the soil in the area that it flows through. The other river is like coffee with cream. Because of the different temperatures and flow rates of the two rivers, they join, but don ´t mix together for about four miles. It ´s really neat to be boating along side the wavy center line watching the stark contrast of the two rivers flowing alongside one another and not mixing. This meeting of the waters is also inspiration for almost all the artistic stone work in all of Brazil. It started in Manaus, using white and black stones in sidewalks and streets to create different designs. The contrast, of course, represents the meeting of the waters. We ´ve seen it all over Brazil, and it was really neat to finally understand and see where it all came from .
Once we arrived in Manaus, one of the many uniformed tourist touts trying to make a buck asked us if we were bound for Belem, the Amazon ´s other large port city near the Atlantic ocean. We were, and he said the only boat leaving that day, the Onze de Maio (11th of May) was $230 reais (the Brazilian currency). We were expecting to pay no more than $160, so I told him we ´d have to find another boat. At which point he told me, “Oh… well, I have a “friend” on the boat. I can get you a deal for $160. I knew something was up if he could afford to drop the price $70. He showed us the boat, and I told him I had to go to the bank to get money. He tried to get me to leave my passport so they could fill out my ticket while I was gone. Of course I refused. I asked the gate guard in the terminal for an ATM and he said I ´d have to walk to the main street. When I returned with cash in my pocket, he waved me through security, and I headed back towards the dock. The tourist tout had gone, and the people at the ticket counter couldn ´t understand why I didn ´t already have a ticket. Finally, they wrote us out tickets direct from the boat for $150 each. Apparently the system is that the uniformed touts are authorized provide the service of running around to arriving boats and drawing business to departing boats. Instead of a commission, they get as much dough as they can scam out of the tourists. You agree on a price with the uniformed tout, pay him, he writes you out a “ticket” that you then present at the ticket counter where they write you out a real ticket. Later, once you ´re out of eyesight, the tout hands over the actual fare and pockets the rest. Luckily, we escaped the system.
With several hours to spare before departure, Pat and I headed into town together this time to pick up some supplies at the market.
When we returned, my amigo manning the security checkpoint waved us back through, but his buddy atthe final counter asked to see our tickets. I realized how lucky I had been that the security officer had remembered me and waved me through the first time I ´d left, since I wouldn ´t have had a ticket to get back through! We showed him our tickets, and he turned us away just as our shuttle was arriving. He sent us back to my amigo who said we couldn ´t get on the boat at this port… that we had to go to another. I panicked. We knew the boat was leaving within an hour (we could never get a straight answer), and we were just ON the boat in THIS port! How can we not get back on!? The guard escorted Pat and the panicking Jema to an information counter, where, after much number crunching and computer research, they handed us a small piece of paper with a seven digit number on it and sent us back to security. This time, they greeted us smiling and waved us on to the shuttle. PHEW.
We found out later that passengers aren ´t allowed to board in that port… only cargo. You have to go to another port and take a boat taxi. Silly system, and if I hadn ´t asked that guard about the ATM, I would have been so screwed when I tried to come back with the money to buy tickets. We have had some incredible luck with this trip!