10 questions I had before our Amazon River adventure to which I now have answers

To prepare for our recent trip down the Amazon River across Brazil, I relied more heavily on blog reports than ever before. But I still had unanswered questions as we began. We learned a lot over the two weeks we were in and around the river. Here are some of the top answers we acquired.

1. What will the food be like?

We wound up taking three boats, and the food supply varied among them. For the first leg between Tabatinga and Alvaroes, our 1200-real ($320) cabin on the Monteiro II included two days of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for both of us, plus purified water. The breakfasts were all carb — bananas, bread, cake, hominy, super-sweet coffee.IMG_2133.jpg Lunches and dinners were much tastier — a meat stew with noodles, pot roast, ground beef. It was simple but hearty food (accompanied by high-carb side dishes.)IMG_2120.jpgMeals were also provided along with our two-day cabin passage on the Fenix (on which we traveled from Tefe to Manaus.) Once again, the food was passable. One dinner consisted of the typical meat hash, very good grilled sausages, white rice, and spaghetti. (We skipped the unappealing vegetable salad.) Lunch the next day was fried chicken legs and wings and more of the sausage.

We took the Amazon Star from Manaus to Santarem to Belem, and our cabin booking on it did not include meals. Food was available for purchase in the galley, but few of the passengers were eating it. Most preferred to buy meals sold at some of our stops along the way. Although we ate the ship’s offerings our first night, it made us nervous. In Manaus we stocked up on picnic supplies, but we should have bought more. Our final night we bought mixto quentes (grilled ham and cheese sandwiches from the little top-deck snack shop). They tasted better than we expected.IMG_2538.jpgAs for the purified water, we drank it for the first two days without incident, but after we both developed traveler’s diarrhea in Manaus, we began to question the sanitation. The water appeared to be coming straight from the river into the refrigerated holding tanks after passage only through a very small filter. We switched to bringing bottled water onboard and had no further intestinal trouble.IMG_2139.jpg

2. Will we drink too much alcohol?

Beer and other alcoholic beverages were less available than we expected. The Monteiro had none for sale (though passengers brought their own onboard). The snack shops on the Fenix and Amazon Star sold beer, and some passengers drank a lot of that. But we found the Brazilian beer to be uninspiring.

3. Will the ships carry lots creepy insects?

They might. The river does run smack through thick jungle. But we sure didn’t see many bugs. I spotted a couple of tiny spiders here and there, but neither of us ever saw or heard any mosquitos. The creepiest moment came when we pulled into Manaus around dawn and were hustling to disembark. Steve felt something crawling on him and brushed it away, with an shudder so visceral it was contagious. He saw a “large” spider disappearing into the gloom on the floor. I checked our belongings compulsively when we got to our hotel, but the arachnid didn’t appear to have hitched a ride with us into town.

4. Will there be mosquito nets?

We never found a hint that anyone on any of our three boats had ever heard of them. And there were none in any of the hotels we stayed at in the towns along the way. The one exception was the somewhat tattered netting over one of our two twin beds at the Casa do Caboclos in Mamiraua Sustainable Ecological Reserve. (Ironically, one of the vacationing biologists we met there said there’s no malaria in that immediate vicinity.)IMG_2261.jpg

5. Will we be attacked by river pirates?

Piracy on the river is apparently increasing. I had read several reports about it, and because so much of the river is so isolated, it’s not inconceivable. Still, on the large boats that we took, it seemed almost unimaginable. Any vessel big enough to attack a big ferry would be awfully easy for authorities to track down, or so we thought. And if ferry attacks were commonplace, a few machine guns would make the big boats easy to defend.

Furthermore, the police presence on the river was notable. Federal cops searched the boat before we left Tabatinga. And more federal officers boarded at two different towns along the way to search for drugs and then disembark.

6. Will I have many opportunities to practice my Portuguese?

Over and over, I felt grateful for every hour I worked to learn some Portuguese (starting about six months before our trip). It enabled me to ask simple questions — and roughly understand the answers. This was invaluable, as almost no one we met on any of the boats spoke English. (Even Spanish was scarce.) One exception was a friendly federal policemen who boarded the Amazon Star in Obidos and cornered us to chat about his upcoming vacation in the Southwest U.S. Steve also conversed with a truck driver who had learned passable English when he lived in London for 5 years. But not a single crew member on any of the ships spoke any English.

7. Will it be hot and steamy all the time?

Surprisingly not! Traveling in late May, we were almost never uncomfortably hot, and that’s only partly because our cabins were air-conditioned. Motoring down the water gave us a breeze that almost always made the days pleasant. Only when the boats docked (sometimes for more than an hour) did the temperature and humidity climb to oppressive levels.

8. Will the ships become disgusting after a day or two?

We were surprised and impressed by how hard the crew of the Monteiro worked to keep her shipshape. Workers were always sweeping up and mopping and cleaning. IMG_2135.jpg When I checked one of the hammock folks’ bathrooms, it seemed respectable even after two days of hard use. IMG_2136.jpg The other two boats were a bit less well-tended. Still, they seemed tidier than most long-distance trains we’ve traveled on.

9. Will there be WiFi onboard?

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! In our dreams. The vast majority of the time we were on the river, there was no phone signal of any sort. Occasionally, approaching or docking at a town, a weak signal would show up on our phones. It invariably took an annoyingly long time to be able to start download data over the signal, and then we’d get headlines: Meghan Markle’s dad will not attend Royal Wedding!!! Trump claims he saved $999,800,000 on Jerusalem embassy! and if we were lucky, email. But then we’d be moving downstream, and the signal would soon evaporate.

10. Will we get bored?

No. The onboard entertainment that I described in my earlier post kept us endlessly engrossed. Beyond that, just being in a place so unusual — so normal on the ship but so alien for thousands of miles in every direction around us — never ceased to interest us. Depending on how the geographers measure it, the river is said to be about 4,130 miles long. We don’t know exactly how much of that is in Brazil, but we figure it’s at least 3,000 miles. We covered that distance at an average speed of 12-15 miles per hour. It takes a river of time. But we flowed with it.

A sporty day in Rio

On our last day in Rio, the police closed the street in front of our Copacabana hotel around 6:30 am. We understood what was happening. Runners in the half marathon had surged past on Saturday morning, and we’d seen posters for the big (26-mile) event beginning at 7:30 am Sunday. The lead runners, lean and fast as greyhounds, blasted by shortly after 9 am. I couldn’t resist taking the elevator down to the street, where handfuls of spectators were applauding and exclaiming, “Bravo! Bravo!” I applauded too, but the leaders were so few and far between, I went back to our room.IMG_1343 An hour later, I descended again, and the passing scene was much more lively.

I’d never cheered on marathon runners before, but it was a day of sporty firsts for Steve and me. We’d never before attended a professional soccer game, either, but we got tickets to watch Rio’s beloved Flamengos face off against the Sao Paolo Corinthians. I wasn’t brave enough to do this on our own. Some of the fans at the games are known to be a rough crew. Instead we signed up with Be a Local, a well-reputed Rio tour company to get not just the tickets but also transportation with a savvy escort.

At 1:30 pm we met up at a nearby hostel with Patrick, the Brazilian guide charged with shepherding about 20 young Brits and us. I’d been hoping he would teach Steve and me a lot about the subtle nuances of Brazilian football, but he didn’t speak English well enough for that. Still he seemed like a worrier, and conscientious, and when we got to the stadium, that was good enough for me. A vast sea of red and black (the Flamengo colors) surged around the entrance gates. In the thick of the contagious high spirits, I couldn’t resist buying a jersey for myself.IMG_2928.jpg

DSC00433.JPGI was excited about the chance to see this temple to that most beloved of South American sports. The Macarana, as the stadium is known, was built for the 1950 World Cup games, and when it opened, it was the biggest such venue in the world. On dozens of occasions, it has held more than 150,000 fans. It was remodeled, though, for the 2014 World Cup, and the redesign reduced the capacity to about 80,000. At one point, the scoreboard announced that almost 50,000 people were present on Sunday afternoon. It sure felt like a monster crowd, bigger than any I’ve ever been part of. When the fans sang or howled or cheered, the roar filled our ears and ballooned out like a shock wave. When one of the players missed a shot and the crowd moaned, the anguish punched you in the gut; made you feel like doubling over.DSC00421.JPG

I can’t report any play by play (and you would have to be a huge fan to find it interesting, if I did). We had to stand during the whole 90-plus minutes to see anything, as everyone else was on their feet nonstop. After the first half, I felt more exhausted than I ever have felt watching a World Cup game on TV. In person, the field is so huge and the players run so hard. The Flamengos seemed more dominant, but the Corinthians kept them from scoring until more than a half hour into the second half. Then a lot of stuff happened very fast, and the Flamengo fans were overtaken by a joy that bordered on dementia.DSC00439The Paolistas couldn’t even the 1-0 score, so the sea of Rio residents seemed relaxed and happy, post-orgasmic, as they flowed out of the stadium into the night. We tourists stuck together in a tight pack and made it back to the bus and the tamer beach neighborhoods. But Steve and I have reflected often throughout this trip that the Brazilians seem happy in general, happier than the residents of any other Central or South American countries we have visited.

We muse that maybe what explains this is the fact that Brazil never gave rise to a brutal, bloodthirsty civilization like the Aztecs or Incas or Mayans. When Europeans arrived, they exploited the place, but with a relatively light hand. Later, Brazilians never had to fight and die to win their independence. Instead the Portuguese king’s son, a fun-loving, licentious guy, asked his dad (who was returning to his throne in Portugal) if he could stay and rule, and the old man said, “Sure. But you should ask for independence.” The son did, the old king assented, and Pedro became the newly freed country’s first emperor. Later, Pedro’s son freed all the slaves without any grisly civil war.

Add to this tranquil history the fact that Brazil, bigger than the lower 48 states, has vast stores of mineral and other natural resources. It is rich in rainfall and sunshine. No natural disasters plague it; no earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes or wildfires routinely wreck havoc here. “Only social disasters,” said Valdo, our guide in Belem — crooked politicians, corrupt business elites, arthritic bureaucracies. If Brazil could just ditch the whole lot, become as free of the old ruling classes as life is on the beach in Copacabana, maybe, Steve and I tell ourselves, this could be the happiest place on earth.

At the beach, on steroids

As travelers, Steve and I have largely avoided beaches. We live just a few blocks from some of the greatest swimming and surfing spots in California; we walk and bicycle along the boardwalk often, so why should we seek out beaches out on vacation? However, we spent all of Saturday exploring Rio’s most famous set of beaches, and what we learned is: Southern California’s beach culture is baby stuff! The beach scene in Rio is world-class, overwhelming.

Copacabana Beach fills an arc that extends for almost two miles, a vast expanse of creamy, fine-grained sand. In yet another stroke of great travel karma, the temperature climbed into the high 80s yesterday and the skies were cloudless. It was also a holiday weekend; by 11 in the morning, locals were streaming in.

Probably the first thing that strikes the visitor is that women’s bathing suits in Rio are not just the stuff of legend. Real, live ladies almost universally wear the same outfit: two little triangles positioned over their nipples, and a minimal thong that wraps around their crotches and disappears between their buttocks. Some of the wearers look like Playboy centerfolds…But many do not.

Almost as eye-catching are the commercial offerings. In Copacabana we lost count of all the stands and little beachfront restaurants hawking caipirinhas (and other cocktails), and if you’re too lazy to walk to one, strolling booze vendors will come to you.(In our alternative universe, just sitting with one’s one private can of beer on the Mission Bay boardwalk can be punished with a pricy fine.) The vendors offer not only alcohol but a mini-mall’s worth of other merchandise.More energetic beach goers participate in several varieties of games played with paddles and balls of various sizes. With twilight, live music began to appear at the food stands.

Steve and I didn’t make it all the way to the end of Ipanema Beach. It was well past our lunchtime, and we wanted something other than a hot dog and a caipirinha. So we walked a block away from the water and chanced upon the very restaurant where Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes wrote The Girl from Ipanema in 1962. We consumed excellent sandwiches and beer, then returned to the beach. Fans have erected a statue of Jobim there. It gets a lot of well-deserved love.

What didn’t happen in Rio

Let me count the negatives: We didn’t get mugged. Didn’t get kidnapped for ransom. Didn’t ride in any vehicles targeted by carjackers. Didn’t get killed in or by a car. Didn’t get hit by a stray bullet.

As I type these words, we have almost two full days left here. So anything still could happen. Steve, who is not normally a nervous Nellie, declared years ago that he would not go to Brazil, Rio in particular, because it sounded so dangerous. He changed his mind, obviously, and not only have all those things not happened; we’ve had a blast, constantly awestruck by the beauty of the natural setting — at least the equal of Hong Kong or San Francisco. At the same time, I have to admit it’s not that Rio isn’t dangerous. The New York Times a few months ago reported on how many times schools have had to close — this year — because the gun-fighting around them was too intense. We read that the Army recently established martial law in some of the favelas (the hillside slums), and things briefly improved. But then the soldiers moved out, and life in those sections have gotten more hellish again.

Because of those reports, we decided with some regret not to take a favela tour, as our close friend Howard Z did a few years ago. He thought it was great, and we really wanted to do it but in the end deemed it an unnecessary risk; we’ve have too much else to do.

Rio has a bunch of grand old buildings, and we got a big dose of them and their history during our walking tour on the first day.

Ones like this, the Municipal Theater

Thursday morning we headed to the recently revamped downtown waterfront. Many things about it reminded us of San Diego, though our city has nothing to compare with Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow in looks or originality of content.

Friday (yesterday) we devoted to the city’s two most iconic high points. First we took a tram up Corcovado mountain to visit Christ the Redeemer (and the stunning panorama he commands).Then we went to Sugarloaf Mountain, whose peak is accessed by a cablecar.

We’ve gotten around to all these sights by almost every mode of transportation possible: metro, city bus, street car, taxis, and Uber. (The last has been best: cheap, ubiquitous, and safe — or so it feels.) The two peak visits felt as modern and efficient and sunny as any major tourist attractions anywhere.

Last night we ubered to Lapa, renowned for its thriving music scene.We had a good time, but we were even more delighted by our experience the previous evening. We’d taken a taxi to an old churrascaria famed for its garlicky grilled sausage and steaks. The restaurant was jammed, as was the sidewalk around it, but by some miracle we snagged a table. We ate a great meal, then wandered to the little park across the street. There vendors had set-up makeshift bars on the equivalent of boards and bricks — full bars offering not just bottled sodas and beer but also draft beer and hard liquor. (This blew the minds of we who live in an country filled with alcohol control boards.) A stage was set up, and around 8:30, a beautiful black woman began singing — mostly r&b and pop standards, all in English — to a large crowd of Rio residents of all ages. Couples were stroking and hugging one another. This feels like the most hedonistic city we’ve ever visited. Some people were dancing. Everyone was moving, transported by the lovely night and the alcohol and the music.

Please understand: we’ve seen much that reminds us of Rio’s darker side. Santa Teresa (the neighborhood where we stayed the first two nights) may have made us think of the Hollywood Hills. But you don’t see razor wire and broken bottle glass cemented into the tops of the walls around people’s homes in Hollywood. Those appear to be de rigueur in Santa Teresa, which faces a huge favela just across the canyon.

Graffiti and busted up sidewalks and people sleeping on the street are commonplace, along with awareness that you can’t go walking down just any street. The deadly streets conjoin the safe ones. It reminds me or New York in the late 70s.

Or I think of LA or Chicago right now. Rival drug gangs kill each other in armed shootouts, and sometimes a little kid eating breakfast in her home in Compton or Englewood dies a bloody death, victim to a stray, unintended bullet. The tourists laughing and taking pictures on Navy Pier or breakfasting on lattes and luscious pastries in Santa Monica may not even hear about that day’s tragedy.

Steve and I at least are aware that bad things are happening here. But we sit next to the huge picture windows of our hotel and we eat our yogurt and amazing mangos and papayas, and excuse us, but we’re very happy.

We had beer and fried fish balls and crab pastries yesterday at the Urca Bar, beloved by Anthony Bourdain and Howard Z. You take your food to the seawall and enjoy the mellow scene.