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.


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.