Relief

So it looks as if we won’t see any tanks rolling through the streets of Rio before we leave Monday morning. That’s fine with us. There’s enough texture and grit and good humor here that I do not expect to be bored, even in the absence of a coup. Although folks were talking about that possibility up north, we have closely questioned Adriana (who owns the B&B where we’re staying) and Gustavo, the guy who led our Free Walking Tour of the downtown and Lapa neighborhoods this morning. Both of them acknowledge the talk but don’t think their fellow Brazilians are desperate or crazy enough to bring back the military (which ruled from 1964 to 1985 and ushered in hyperinflation and economic ruin.)

Gustavo admitted things were bad last weekend. No one could get gas, so all the taxi drivers and buses were idled; the only way to get around was on the metro. But he said the trucker’s strike has now ended, and hordes of cars jammed the streets of the center city today. Pedestrian traffic in many places also was more dense than it is in most of Manhattan.

Adriana sounded grimmer. She laid out an elaborate breakfast spread for us this morning, and she says she’ll be okay tomorrow, but she expects to run out of eggs and flour by the weekend. (She could get some eggs, but she’d have to pay almost four times the normal price.) She thinks dark days are coming for Brazil, but, “You have to have darkness in order to have light,” she said with a shrug.

So we feel more relaxed. Adriana’s house is in the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Its hills and luxuriant vegetation remind us of the Hollywood Hills, but here cobblestones line the streets, and churches are hundreds of years old. The tram running through the place equals San Francisco’s cable cars for charm.We rode it downtown. The part of the route that runs over an old aqueduct felt a bit like being on a roller coaster.

This evening Steve and I will drink caipirinhas at a nearby bar, then choose from a dozen restaurants for dinner. Tomorrow morning we plan to see more of this part of town, then in the afternoon we’ll move to a hotel on Copacabana beach. I can’t think of a better way to spend my 65th birthday.

The view of Sugarloaf Mountain from the pool at our B&B.

The fruits of Bethlehem

And to think I didn’t even know the proper pronunciation of açaí (ah-sah-EE) until recently. (I called it uh-KIE or sometimes uh-SIGH.) Now I know what kind of tree açaí grows on — a beautiful palm from the state of Pará (whose capital is Belém). I understand now that the deep purple juice or syrup that’s become so trendy in North America and Europe, renowned for almost mystical health-giving properties, isn’t made from what most of us think of as a fruit, but rather from the paper-thin skin on the seeds that sprout in broom-like clusters from the top of that palm. Açaí trees grow in the jungle, and local folks gather them by shinnying up the tall, skinny trunks, cutting off the seed clusters, and sliding to the ground with them.

The feathery palms are the ones that bear the açaí seeds.

I know this because, suddenly gifted with almost two full days in Belem, Steve and I lined up a day and a half of touring. Our guide was a Belém native named Valdo Ast. Now 53, Valdo was born to very poor parents. He couldn’t afford college but at some point began hankering to learn English. Armed first with language tapes, then with the chutzpah to strike up conversations with English-speaking tourists, he became fluent enough to entertain us and discourse on any topic we brought up: history, politics, world events. (He later also mastered Spanish and French and now is working on his Italian and German.)

Valdo picked us up at our hotel Sunday morning, not long after we disembarked from the Amazon Star. He explained that Portuguese soldiers first established a toehold here in 1616, naming it after the town where Jesus was born (Belém is the Portuguese name for Bethlehem). For more than 200 years, the settlers did little more than export exotic curiosities such as cacao beans and jaguar skins back to Europe, while discouraging French or Dutch adventurers from staking any claims to the place. Then in the late 1800s, rubber brought prosperity, as it did to Manaus. Although vast areas of Belem today consist of squalid, moldy, ruined neighborhoods plagued by rampant crime, the city also has a cultural and architectural legacy that includes several gems.

In Valdo’s tow, we breezed through the lively waterfront produce and fish market, visited the fort and its museum, popped into the massive cathedral and a basilica that every year draws more than a million worshippers from all over the country. My favorite stop was the city’s zoo and horticultural preserve. Shy giant rodents (agoutis) and iguanas roam freely throughout grounds that are as green and densely packed with plant life as the jungle, foliage so tall and abundant it makes the San Diego Zoo looked denuded.

Yesterday (Monday) we ventured out on a final riverine and jungle adventure. A driver took Valdo and us to a marina where we boarded an aluminum skiff. We blasted across the broad Guama River then chugged up narrow channels that looked like cousins to the Louisiana bayou. At last we disembarked and hiked to the property of Mr. Ladir. “He’s 84,” Valdo told us. “But every time I ask how old he is, he says 74, 75.” A family member had enlightened the guide about the old man’s true birth date.

Like so much of our time in the Amazon, our visit with Mr. Ladir was grubby but riveting. A little shy and clad only in a pair of thin, sagging old shorts, our host seemed welcoming, but his wife sat on the porch of their hut, looking forlorn. According to Valdo, she’s completely blind and can no longer walk; the old man does everything for her.

For us he picked up something that looked like a rusty cannonball — a true Brazil nut.

They’re almost as lethal as cannonballs when they drop from the gigantic trees every winter and spring. In those seasons, Valdo told us, visitors must wear hard hats. Mr. Ladir hacked at one with a small machete. It took some work, but eventually he split it open……and dug out a dozen or so seeds. (What we gringos think of as Brazil nuts actually are just the seeds of one.) Mr. Ladir washed them……then used his blade to peel off their tough outer coverings. The meat had a flavor and texture that reminded me a little of fresh coconut, softer and more moist than any Brazil nut I’ve ever bought in a store. I wasn’t the only one who loved them. A pair of resident mangrove parrots (Amazonia amazonicus) choose to live in Mr. Ladir’s compound. The female hopped on a stick extended by our guide and seemed to enjoying inspecting us, then she accepted a Brazil nut/seed from me and shared it with her mate.

After a while, Valdo led us on a hike to visit more jungle wonders. He split open a fat, ripe cacao pod, and we sucked on the sweet juicy pulp encasing the cacao beans.He scored a rubber tree and we watched the cut swell with, then bleed snow-white latex. We admired one gigantic tree after another, prized for its fruit or wood or sheer beauty.

Finally we wound up in a space where açaí trees clustered, more of a clearing than most of the country we’d been hiking through. When the açaí trees get old and their seed production plummets, people cut them down to harvest their tender upper sections — the source of what English speakers call hearts of palm. Mr. Ladir appeared and quickly fashioned a rig made of vines that he slipped around his ankles. He shinnied up the tree, agile as a telephone lineman wearing climbing spikes. When he had reached a height of maybe 25 feet, he reached over to an adjoining tree and swung his skinny body onto it, showing off.

I shot a video of this. When I get back to San Diego, I will add it. The octogenarian’s strength and skill almost have to be seen to be believed. Now, however, I’m writing this on an airplane, en route from Belem to Rio. It’s possible we’ll have lightning-fast Internet in the Marvelous City. Somehow I doubt it. Also, we will be engrossed with wonders and dangers that may make the jungle look tame in comparison: terrifying drivers and Sugarloaf Mountain and warring drug gangs and Ipanema Beach and now an unfolding national crisis. Truck drivers all over Brazil have been on strike for a week. We’re hearing calls for the Brazilian military to remove President Temer and take over. I’m not expecting to have a lot of time to devote to techno-troubleshooting.

Onboard entertainment

If you are thinking you too might someday want to cruise down the Amazon on local riverboats, you may be wondering about the onboard entertainment options. They are numerous.

On the first two of our three ferries, screens were mounted at the ends of the hammock decks, and we also had a private television in our cabin on both boats. Only a single channel was available, but the programming varied among soccer matches, telenovelas, variety shows, and a Brazilian variant on American Idol that, though less polished, appeared to be no less popular. Electronic snow also filled the screens at frequent intervals.

What our third and final boat, the Amazon Star, lacks in television (i.e. everything), it makes up for in the volume and persistence of the musical programming. No one strings up their hammocks on the top deck. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s forbidden or because the amazing loudness of the music would interfere even with the Brazilian ability to nap. Shortly after dawn, prayers, delivered by a guy with a deep, unctuous voice, are broadcast for maybe half an hour. Then begins the Brazilian pop and other offerings that continue until later every night than we ever have stayed up.

Personal electronic systems also are very popular. On the Star, folks cluster around the few public electrical outlets, listening to music and playing electronic games. Cell service is a rarity. Of the 156 hours we’ve spent traveling on the Amazon, I’d be surprised if we had cell service for 10 of them. It only popped up on my phone when we stopped — infrequently — at towns along the route. And then sometimes it still didn’t let us connect with the outside world.

None of the electronic choices interested Steve or me. But other activities have kept us from ever feeling bored. The five main ones have been.

1) Writing. We don’t use our iPads to play sudoku or watch movies. But we have spent countless hours on them — me writing these blog posts; Steve keeping a detailed diary. Writing is how we remember stuff; make sense of it. It lets us share what we’ve experienced with other people. The hours spent writing, while glancing up at the scenery, have flown by.

2) Listening to our books. We brought print books with us but haven’t touched them. We’ve preferred listening to audiobooks (at least for a few hours) while keeping an eye on our surroundings.

3) Feeling awestruck. Call us slow, but even today, our final day on the river, this place continues to dumbfound us. Being here is a face-slapping reminder that the Amazon is the last great wild river on the planet — undammed, unspanned, flooding and contracting and having its way with the jungle that protects it for thousands of miles to the north and south. The Amazon basin is Nature Triumphant. I know humans are challenging it around the edges. But you’d never guess that when you’re cruising down the river. It has repulsed would-be exploiters, broken some of the richest men in the world. No rapids interrupt the central channels of the Amazon, but its very being roars.

4) Drinking in the natural beauty. Tourists on the river have an important first choice: travel upstream or down. Guidebooks advise that the upstream option is more interesting because the boats tend to travel close to shore, where the current is weaker. In contrast, downstream boats can be a mile or two from each bank, the jungle little more than a distant green line. But the current-boosted downstream trip takes three or so days less than the upstream one, and that’s the direction we picked.

Because of what I’d read, I was braced for much of the journey to be a little boring, visually. The biggest surprise of the trip, thus, for me has been how misguided that expectation was. More than anything else I’ve ever done, this trip reminds me of rafting down that great American river, the Colorado (11 years ago.) The Amazon and the Grand Canyon are in a league of their own: natural wonders continental in scale, wonders you can see from outer space. Both are endlessly, breathtakingly beautiful. But whereas on the Colorado, it’s all about the rock walls, on the Amazon, the magnificence fills the sky.

We never cruised into any great booming ear-shattering thunderstorms (though they’re commonplace here, and we saw some in the distance.) We did motor through several torrential downpours, but none lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes. Then the drenching showers stopped. We never sailed under cloudless skies. Rather, the skies were always inhabited by clouds that have taken as many shapes and colors as there are insects in the jungle. I’ve never been one to sit and watch the clouds, but I became that person on this trip. Watching, I reflected that the clouds and sun are the true parents of this paradise — spawning the rain that swells the rivers and makes the plant life explode.

5) Observing river life, both off and on the boat.

Life on the ship

Aboard the Amazon Star, our accommodations are a lot less fancy than on our first boat, the Monteiro (though much nicer than the dumpy Fenix). Our “suite” has no private deck, and the bunk beds are too low to sit up in. On the first morning, I commandeered one of the ship’s white plastic chairs, and since then I’ve spent a fair amount of time in it, looking out our cabin door (which we can secure in an open position), because the music on the top deck bothers me when I write.But I’ve also enjoyed the social scene up top; Steve has spent most of his waking hours there.There’s a little snack shop that sells beer (after beer after beer) and other necessities such as cigarettes (despite the signs everywhere warning No Smoking!) Our fellow passengers sit at the little plastic tables and slap down dominoes or cards, or they drink and chat or hold their kids or, like us, stare mesmerized at the river. On a few hot afternoons, the crew of the Amazon Star turned on showers mounted on the fan deck for folks to stand and cool off under. (We weren’t quick or brave enough to join them.)

Although Steve and I are the only non-Brazilians aboard, folks shrug off our presence. They’re neither hostile nor friendly, with a few notable exceptions. A truck driver from Sao Paolo named Marco insisted that we taste one of the hearts of palm from his open jar (delicious!). One of the snack shop guys kindly opened my tin of sardines (bought in Manaus) when I realized it required a tool I lacked. And a worker in the ship’s tiny dining room not only boiled water (required for my packet of Starbucks Via coffee) when I requested it. She also loaned me a thermos so I could take the water with me.

We would have seen more, I’m sure, had we been living in the hammock area, but after my early infatuation with our hammock on the Monteiro, we’ve come to believe cabins were a better choice for us. All the hammocks on the Amazon Star are crammed into an enclosed, air-conditioned space that at times has become jammed to the patience-breaking point. We got a firsthand account of how unpleasant this could be from Jessica and Frank, the Dutch couple we first met in the nature reserve. They wound up taking the 11-hour-long “fast” boat from Tefe to Manaus, then they appeared when we were boarding the Star, bound for Santarem. We like them a lot and enjoyed a lively evening together on the fantail, drinking cachaca and eating picnic supplies we’d all acquired in Manaus. In the morning, however, they looked strained.

They explained that when they’d returned to their hammocks after our evening get-together, they’d found that a short fat woman had strung her hammock up in the narrow space between their two. She was sprawled sideways, her head in Frank’s rig and her feet in Jessica’s. They’d asked her to move, but she was mulish. So they went to the bridge to complain, and the result was that a crew member came to make the woman change places with Jessica.

Our friends were fine with this, but it didn’t sit well with the spiteful lady traveler. She jabbed her elbow into Jessica and poked her for half the night. Then she fell asleep and snored loudly. We were just as happy to have missed that sort of drama.

Life surrounding the ship

Early into the trip, we realized we were experiencing something that disappeared from America before our parents were born: the world inhabited and immortalized by Mark Twain, the world populated by tiny towns that spring to life with the arrival of the riverboat. On each of the four legs of our trip, our ships stopped at 4-6 places. Sometimes this came in the middle of the night. Those we missed. But during the daylight hours, we stood at the railing and never failed to be, by turns, intrigued, amused, sometimes flabbergasted.

We watched passengers bring on mountains of luggage; watched porters hefting plantains and bagged Brazil nuts, cooking pots packaged in plastic, even a couple of incubators for premature babies. I swear I once saw a guy bearing a small refrigerator on his head, but I couldn’t react fast enough to snap a photo before it was whisked onboard. I did capture the moment when the Monteiro edged over to a high bank of the river, and some crew members managed to lay down two massive gangplanks. A truck was then driven over them for transport downstream.Over and over, Steve marveled at the inefficiency of the stevedores’ actions. They loaded hundreds of cases of beer, one case at a time. They loaded sacks of onions this way and bags of cement. Some transactions were swifter and more inventive. When the vendors in the little town of Monte Alegre were finally released from confinement behind a barrier, they rushed forward, bellowing what they had to offer. I couldn’t make out the Portuguese food names, but passengers were buying. The vendors put the tins of hot food in plastic bags, attached these to long poles, and transferred them upward. Passengers paid by putting their money in the plastic containers fastened to the ends of the poles.

As we approached the river’s delta on our last two days, there was more and more to see: more barges, more shacks and churches on the banks of the narrower channels. Sometimes we got close enough to these to almost read the names of the writing on the t-shirts hanging out to dry. We also witnessed an Amazon curiosity that simultaneously horrified and amazed us. Young kids (mostly) piloting long narrow wooden riverboats zoomed toward our ferry. From it, passengers tossed plastic bags filled with candy and other junk food. The 6- or 8- or 10-year-old hunter-gatherers would scoop them up, then zoom off looking for more. Marco, the Paulista truck driver, later explained to Steve that the passengers enjoyed bringing smiles to the faces of these little kids who had nothing. He himself had spent 50 reais (about $14) on chips that he had tossed overboard.

Later that afternoon, some of the kids came to us. With consummate skill they sidled in their narrow skiffs up to the Star and lashed them to us, then, scrambled up the side of our ferry bearing bags of cooked creatures that looked like crawfish. It seemed shockingly hazardous.

Finally sunset came. Out on the fantail, Steve and I ate ham and cheese sandwiches that were toasted by the guy in the snack bar. I thought the sunset was the most beautiful of all that we had seen…

…but after a while, the color darkened and drained. We were about to gather our stuff and return to our cabin, when a young Brazilian couple plunked plastic chairs next to the railing in front of us. He had a banjo; she had maracas. They started playing music and I wondered how it could compete with the ballad blaring from the speakers behind us. But then another young women and two guys joined the first two, and the performance grew in volume. Then a woman about 40 appeared, accompanied by a man whom we figured was too old to be her son, and too old to be her boyfriend. Sensual as sin, she started dancing to the performers’ song. A guy as old as Steve carted over a plastic garbage can, turned it over, and added percussive accompaniment. The woman who was dancing drew all of us watching her deeper into the music and the moment; I drummed on our table. Had I drunk another beer and had the music continued, I would have been on my feet, dancing with her. But after 3 or 4 songs, the musicians stopped. They lit cigarettes, and 5 minutes later, it started to rain.

This wasn’t boring. Much of our trip across Brazil on the Amazon was grubby, and a few aspects were creepy, but none of it was boring. I’m sorry this journey has come to an end.

Showering in Santarem

[Sorry about posting that photo of our arrival in Santarem — twice! I’ve been having trouble transferring photos from my phone to my iPad, and that was one of the glitches.]

Karim flaked out on us. After assuring us he would concoct an abbreviated tour, he never got back to me; never answered any of my subsequent messages. Never contacted us after we docked in Santarem at 6 pm Thursday.No Karim in the arrival area at the portI may hear an explanation eventually, but as I type (once again steaming eastward on the Amazon Star), I have no idea what happened.

Karim was supposed to introduce us to the rubber-growing history, lead us on a hike into the rainforest, take us canoeing in the nearby town of Alter do Chao. Lacking his guidance — and much time at all, really — we were lusting for a good shower. Our cabin on the Amazon Star actually has a bathroom with a shower head. Steve and I could have opted to sleep onboard Thursday night and use it. But the ship’s water is one temperature — cool — and we worried that sleeping on the Star for four nights straight might make our affection for her cool too. We wanted a REAL shower, preferably a hot one. What we wound up with was a shower unlike what we’ve seen anywhere else.

After we’d arrived at Santarem’s port and realized that Karim was out of the picture. I managed (with the help of my booking.com app) to rebook a “king” room for one night at the Hotel Palace Santarem (where we’d been scheduled to stay for two nights before the cancellation of the Saturday boat screwed up our plans). As far as I can tell, Santarem has no five-star hotels, nor any four- or three-star ones. My pre-trip research had indicated the Hotel Palace was the best of the two-star bunch. Indeed its clean, modern lobby looked promising when we checked in.

Our $45 room, enormous, also was immaculate, if austere. No ornamentation of any kind relieved the stark white walls. Frosted glass separated the bedroom from the bathroom. In short order, I shucked off my sweat-damp clothes and stepped though that portal into the space you see pictured here:

Note first that this shower has no less than 4 grip bars and a fold-down seat. That’s because once soap and water enter the picture, the slick floor tile makes it a lethal place. In the photo, Steve is holding two plastic attachments the function of which neither of us could puzzle out, even after some study. Turning the valve mounted about waist-height made water flow out of the lofty showerhead. But turning that higher valve handle neither activated the attachments nor had any apparent effect on the water temperature (which to our disappointment was mainly tepid, with occasional pulses of warmth). To sit on the shelf (and avoid death by slipping) put one in the unavoidable path of that too-cool water.

The wash basin, too, was a space-age wonder, controlled only by a light sensor in the shaft. Motion made it start running, but only in the presence of light. Anyone who wanted to rinse his or her hands in the wee hours without waking his or her bed partner had no choice but the demonic shower. Worse, unlike the automated faucets ubiquitous in North America (which shut off quickly to conserve water), this one flowed on and on after each ignition. It drove us (who come from dry, drought-prone Southern California) nuts.

Still, shower we did, and we felt grateful for it. Armed with a restaurant recommendation from the desk clerk, we set out around 7:20 into streets that were emptying quickly. We made a fast foray into a drug store, deserted except for its two pharmacists, and asked for Lomotil. (In curing our gut problems, we’d used up our supply.) We learned that in this part of Brazil you can buy them four-at-a-pop for about 14 cents a pill.

We dashed into a little supermarket minutes before it closed (at 7:30) to get a liter of drinking water and two rolls of toilet paper (our supply on the ship being close to gone and the chances of resupply on board being dubious). We continued on to the restaurant through streets so closed and abandoned looking they made both of us nervous. But the waterfront wasn’t far, and we soon found our destination: Mascotinho’s Pizzeria and Bar.

I counted about a dozen young waiters, food preparers, and other assistants bustling about. I’m not sure there were that many customers. But an earnest young man singing and playing guitar at a little stage enlivened the place; it seemed there should have been more business. We weren’t very hungry, so Steve ordered a hamburger. I asked for a cheeseburger and a beer for us to share. As an after-thought, I tacked on a order of French fries (batatas fritas).

Considering the ratio of diners to food preparers, it seemed to take ages for our burgers to arrive. But they were tasty — fat, nicely seasoned patties on fresh buns. We consumed them with gusto. We got no French fries, however, and began to wonder if they’re been forgotten. When they finally appeared — maybe 15 minutes after we’d eaten our main choices — they were practically still sizzling. We ate most of them, even though we were already full.

It came as a shock, then, to see on the bill that the burger had cost about $1.90. My cheeseburger was about $2.20 — about the same price as the beer. But the fries cost almost $5.50!

Why did they cost so much? Take so long? Did the cooks have to run out and buy the potatoes, peel and slice them up, heat the oil? What happened to Karim? Who thought that shower was a good idea? I like to record such quotidian wonders from time to time, because they’re as much part of the fabric of travel as the unseen anacondas swimming in the water that supports our boat or the giant Morpho butterflies dancing in the jungle on the shore.

Troubles in Manaus

At the news that our Saturday boat from Santarem to Belem (at the river’s mouth, the endpoint of our journey), had been cancelled, Steve remarked, “If nothing goes wrong, it’s a cruise, not an adventure.” We could think of some options, but only a few:

1) Take the Monday boat (the next one available) and try to change our Tuesday, 12:40 pm flight to Rio to a later one. But when we researched this, we found we would have to leave at 3 in the morning and pay a fortune, in large part because a big religious holiday, Corpus Christi, starts Wednesday (one of the many that serve as an excuse for the entire country to take a multi-day weekend). Also locals advised us that any last-minute change of this sort was certain to get screwed up.

2) Give up on our dream of traveling the entire length of the river through Brazil and instead fly the Santarem-to-Belem segment on Saturday or Sunday. Our hearts sank at this prospect; we’ve heard that this last leg passes through some of the most interesting scenery.

3) Take the boat leaving Santarem Friday (instead of Saturday). It was scheduled to arrive in Belem Sunday morning (instead of Monday). This would give us more time in Belem and plenty of time to make our Tuesday flight. But we would miss out on the full day of touring around Santarem that we had booked with a reputedly awesome guide named Karim. With him we’d been looking forward to visiting Belterra (the abandoned rubber-producing enclave built by Henry Ford in the 1940s), hiking in the rainforest, and canoeing in a lagoon around a landmark known as the Island of Love.

Then I got a message from Raphael in Belem. He suggested there might be a slightly better solution. Turns out that he and Karim are close friends, and they had just talked. Karim seemed willing to shorten our full-day tour Friday to something we could squeeze in. The Wednesday Manaus-to-Santarem boat, the Amazon Star, is supposed to arrive in Santarem around 6 pm Thursday, dock, spend the night there, and then depart for Belem sometime Friday morning. I spoke via WhatsApp to Karim last night (Tuesday evening), and he also outlined this plan. He said he would find out more about when the boat was due to depart and come up with an itinerary that would fit. He also said he would look for an inexpensive hotel near the port where we could sleep in greater comfort Thursday night. He would pick us up at the hotel early Friday, give us the abbreviated tour, and get us back to the ship before it chugs off on its way.

We agreed to this. Our two tickets for the Wednesday Manaus-to-Santarem boat and the Saturday Santarem-to-Belem boat were changed to a single ticket on the Wednesday boat that goes from Manaus to Belem. I’m a little worried that I haven’t heard from Karim this morning before the Amazon Star steamed out of town (and cell service). But we figure at worst, we’ll just stay on the boat and see almost nothing of Santarem. Or Karim will communicate with us at some point, and we’ll spend some time with him before returning to the ship and sailing on (or we’ll miss the ship and have to scramble again.)

Trying to work our way through these tangles consumed part of Tuesday. Most of the rest of that day was overshadowed by intestinal troubles. Steve woke up with little appetite and soon was having diarrhea. By the afternoon he was exhausted and running a 102-degree fever; he slept for much of the day. It took me longer to succumb, but by the middle of Tuesday night, I too felt awful. The good news is that both of us were much better 9 hours later, by the time we boarded the Amazon Star.

We’re a little sad that we missed seeing more of Manaus. It’s a humid, moldering, graffiti-blasted metropolis that could have been designed by Hollywood as a setting for some overwrought jungle flick. But it is the biggest city on the Amazon. It boasts a world-class attraction: the outlandish Teatro Amazonas opera house, inaugurated in 1894, back when folks who were profiting richly from the rubber trade called the town home. When global rubber production shifted to Asia in the early 1900s (after the Brits smuggled seeds out of Brazil), Manaus experienced tough times, and the theater fell into disrepair. But it since has been restored to its original glory, and it continues to be the cultural heart of the community. (The annual opera festival was just wrapping up when we were there.)

On our first morning in Manaus, a charming Brazilian girl who’s majoring in English-language education led us on a 75-minute tour of the theater. In the afternoon, we wandered around town, getting money, buying picnic provisions for the long upcoming river trip, and noting the few but eye catching remnants of the town’s one-time glory. Although Manaus is said to be one of the most dangerous and violent cities in Brazil, we felt safe, at least in daylight in the city’s core, filled with men and women of every age. For lunch, sitting on the pretty central plaza, we ate one of the most delicious fish I’ve ever tasted (an almost boneless creature called tambaqui, For dinner we returned to the plaza and gobbled down a wonderful pizza topped with hearts of palm, then topped that off with tropical flavors of ice cream at a scoop-it-yourself place across from the opera house.

The ice cream tasted great, but we suspect that was what did us in. One never knows for sure.

An ironic twist

The irony is that I was so worried about the two legs of our riverboat journey for which we could not buy tickets in advance. And I felt so cozy about the other two legs, having found agents in the Amazon to secure cabins for us. We even paid for them in advance (using PayPal for one but having to wire the money to France (!) for the other.)

As it turned out, however, getting cabins for the second leg was as easy as for the first (which I’ve described in that earlier post). When we left the reserve, Choca motored us to the larger town of Tefe, about 40 minutes ride from the Pousada. He tethered his motorboat to the Fenix, an ancient riverboat that I knew was supposed to leave at 6, bound for Manaus. A cabin was available, and for just 300 reais (about $83, including the two nights accommodation and all meals and water). We handed over the money and bade goodbye to Choca.

After arrival in Manaus at dawn on Monday, I texted Leonardo, the agent from whom we had bought the Manaus-Santarem tickets, and he confirmed that someone would deliver the tickets to our hotel and drive us to the boat Wednesday morning. So we passed a carefree day.

Then yesterday (Tuesday) morning, I got an urgent email from Raphael (the agent in Belem from whom I had bought the Santarem-Belem tickets.) The boat, he wrote, “will not leave [Santarem] on Saturday because he was interdicted by local authority, by irregular documents.” Raphael wondered if we could take the boat leavingMonday. But THAT was a big problem, because the Monday boat would not arrive in Belem until late Tuesday, and we have plane tickets to Rio leaving Belem mid-day Tuesday.

A lot of scrambling ensued, and we think we may have a solution. We’re now on the Amazon Star, due to cast off in a few minutes, whereupon I expect to soon lose service again. With luck, however, I will have a post written and ready to post tomorrow evening, when we’re due to reach Santarem. Stay tuned.

The greatest animal

There are only two lodges in the Mamiraua Reserve. One, named after the red-faced Uakari monkey that’s endemic here, has the reputation of being one of the best ecolodges in the Amazon. I lusted to stay in it, but beside being very expensive, guests have to stay for either three or four days, with the stay starting only on certain days of the week. In the end, I couldn’t make the times work with our schedule.

I knew that the only other lodge, the Pousada Casa do Caboclo, would be a more trying experience. It was started three years ago by a local Amazonian couple, and though less expensive, it’s much more rustic. I was prepared for that, but somehow I still felt dismayed upon arrival. The main two-level structure is built on stilts out of planks and 2-by-4s cut from some rock-hard jungle tree, but all so crudely put together that Steve exclaimed, “It looks like something I would build!”

Our room was cramped, containing only 2 cots, a table, and a few (too few) nails driven in the wall to serve as hooks. With the other guests, we shared three mosquito-infested bathrooms down the hall. I wondered what other creatures might join us in the night; plenty of openings in our room’s floor and walls looked tailor-made for admitting creepy-crawlies. Only one of the two beds had a mosquito net above it. Steve graciously ceded that one to me.Whenever anyone walked down the hall outside our door, the whole building trembled. That made me uneasy. And it wasn’t the only thing that made me think the folks running this place were unacquainted with the Rules of Safety with which all Americans, even Baby Boomers like me, grew up. On the top floor, next to to the communal dining room, one section of the corridor had no railing or barrier of any sort between the edge and the 20-foot drop to the ground below. What may have protected any fool who drank too much at dinner was that drinking too much at dinner was not possible; the lodge neither served nor sold alcohol of any sort. (Steve and I wondered if the evangelical Christian church next door had anything to do with this.)

We were irritable that first night; whispered to ourselves about where in our travels we had ever stayed in any place so primitive. (We could think of two or three, but not many.) It wasn’t until the second afternoon that our attitudes began to change.

When we arrived, we met Alan, the sunny, 30-year-old English-speaking (sort of) Amazonas native who lives with his family next door to the lodge. At 3:30 that first afternoon, he took us out in a motorized dugout canoe that was leaking so badly he had to bail water from it periodically. He drove Steve and me through channels in the forest to a big lake, and over the course of two hours, we spotted monkeys (spider, capuchin, and howler), a sloth sleeping near the top of one of the gigantic trees, and countless birds. We saw no alligators, but when Alan emitted a low-pitched exclamatory call, answering calls echoed all around us — baby caimans, the guide explained, making the noise that they make when their moms call. It was adorable.

The next morning Alan took us out in a bigger skiff to look for the freshwater dolphins for which the Amazon is famous. We saw lots of the little gray species but only glimpses of the larger, flamboyantly pink ones. (We think we’ll see more as we continue down the river.)

By noon another pair of English-speaking tourists had arrived at the lodge: Frank and Jessica, a middle-aged Dutch couple now living in New Zealand. Thursday afternoon, Alan and another guide took the four of us on an adventure that you could only have in this astonishing ecosystem, at this time of year, in the company of a pair of young guys who grew up here and were completely unschooled in euro-norteamericano Rules of Safety.

What’s astonishing about the varzea ecosystem is that every May and June, after the months with the heaviest rains, the river system swells enough to flood the rainforest — in places the water can be 40 feet deep. All the plants and animals have adapted to this annual phenomenon. Creatures that normally live move on the land, like jaguars and tarantulas, move into the trees temporarily. Humans build their houses on stilts, and tourists who can hike along the forest trails in September instead must travel everywhere in boats.

In the flood season, grasses and giant water lilies and beautiful little velvet-leaved floating plants proliferate, making sections of the channels and lakes look like Midwestern fields. (You can’t see that everything is floating.) After passing areas like this, Alan and his assistant first pointed our craft into the ghostly flooded forest, where the light is shadowy and tangles of branches sometimes stretched just inches over our heads. It’s a weird, unearthly experience to know you’re seeing everything from a vantage point maybe 15 feet above the “ground.”

We emerged from the eerie gloom in one place to face a barrier of floating grasses so thick it reminded me of a cornfield. I thought we were trapped. But Alan gave a signal, and his assistant revved up the motor. The skiff leapt forward and rammed into the grass wall. All four of us gringoes were saucer-eyed.

We did this over and over during the next hour or so. Each time the grass would part and then completely encircle our boat, which struggled forward and usually broke through to another clear channel. Sometimes we got stuck, but the two guides always managed to free us (though not without some suspense.) Every time we smashed into the grasses, it triggered an explosion of insects and other little creatures, some of whom wound up in the boat. It felt a little like joyriding through the neighborhood with no regard to where the roads were; it gave a whole new meaning to the term “bushwhacking.”

Our outing the final morning was less rowdy, but it felt no less joyous. Alan and his helper motored the four of us through a brief section of flooded forest to another channel, one we hadn’t yet visited. Open to the sky, it was relatively narrow (i.e. bigger than most California rivers but downright intimate, compared to the Amazon’s major tributaries). Alan shut off the motor and picked up a paddle. Liberated from the buzzsaw of noise, we could hear the wondrous variety of bird calls, the soft splash of the oar, the ghostly moaning chorus of distant howler monkeys.

The sun was out but filtered and tempered by passing clouds. Riots of morning glories (or their close relatives) tumbled down trees and other footholds along the shore.

At one point, we paused to watch Alan pull out a thin wooden stick to which a hook and line had been attached. With a few quick casts he hooked a beautiful little river fish that he identified as a pacu. In less than a minute, he caught another.

We glided along; saw more animals, including my first wild toucan. I wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t see more. It seemed that the greatest, wildest creature was ever-present: the jungle itself. It is beautiful and incomprehensible, and the part of it that we were seeing hasn’t changed in any significant way since humans appeared on the planet. I felt depthless gratitude for everything that made it possible for me to be there, not least of which included our rickety little guesthouse.