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.