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 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.

Into the hammock and off the boat

We were wrong about hammocks! When we tried our friend’s last year, we spent only a minute or two in it, climbed out, and concluded we could never get any rest in one. But on our second afternoon on the Monteiro, we strung up the one we bought in Leticia, and I committed myself to a longer confinement. I had slept badly our first night in the “suite,” not because there was anything wrong with its bed. Rather, my imagination plagued me with blood-curdling thoughts of what would happen if the Monteiro were to capsize in this trackless wilderness. So by the afternoon of the next day, I was drowsy, and I found that I could wriggle into several different positions in the hammock — all of which were comfy!

I dozed but didn’t quite sleep, pleased by the glimpses of the river beyond the ship’s railings; amused by the lively salsa lessons being given by a skinny Colombian guy to the two curvaceous redheads who had the hammocks to my left. I felt more awake after a while and found I could hoist myself up almost upright, supporting my back with my little inflatable pillow. I read for a while, felt lazy and dozed some more, and began to imagine how I could spend a day or two this way. Steve insisted he didn’t want to try it, but I finally persuaded him, and when I returned a half-hour later, he sheepishly confessed that he had napped.

We spent more time with our fellow traveler, Jen, last night at dinner. Upon boarding, she set up her hammock in the thick of the crowd on the second-level deck. After 24 hours, she’d learned enough to discourse to us about hammock life. She’d concluded that her cheap one was inferior to those of the natives. Rough to the touch, it was much smaller than her neighbors’. With a big enough hammock, one could stretch out at an angle, she’d observed, achieving something close to horizontality. Families tied their hammocks next to each other, creating a pendant microvillage. But even with her inferior rig and unfamiliarity with hammock customs, Jen claimed to have slept well both nights.

It makes Steve and me think that if necessary, we could tolerate sleeping in hammocks on the second of our upcoming boat journeys, the one bound for Manaus. We had hoped to secure tickets for another cabin immediately after disembarking from the Monteiro. We had thought we knew what that disembarcation would entail. We had no clue.

Our plan had been to take the ship from Tabatinga to Alvaraes, the closest village to the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve. Lonely Planet describes this reserve as Brazil’s largest section of a unique forest ecosystem (the varzea) defined by seasonal flooding by sediment-rich “white water” rivers.It was said to offer visitors “pristine rainforest, abundant animal life, and fairly easy access.” It seemed worth seeing. Via email, we had reserved a room in a lodge in the reserve for two nights, and Choca, the owner, had promised to pick us up in Alvaraes in his speedboat.

In Tabatinga, we had bought passage to Alvaraes. “ALVARAES” was clearly written on our ticket. But what I knew — ONLY because I had read about it in a blog — was that the slow boats don’t stop at Alvaraes. I’d read about one unfortunate couple who didn’t realize this until well after their ship had steamed beyond the town. They hadn’t informed the captain they wanted to be dropped off, so their predicament was their fault, according to the crew, and couldn’t be reversed.

Wanting to avoid a similar fate, I had started telling various ship’s personnel on Wednesday that we would need to be let off the next day at Alvaraes. Each one seemed a little surprised to hear this, but each indicated we could do it. In the end I probably told a half-dozen folks, including the captain and pilot in the wheelhouse, where I barged in this morning. The times when everyone predicted we would arrive conflicted — but we’ve grown jaded about that. More surprising was the news that we would get to Alvaraes by taking a “lanche” from the Monteiro.

We assumed our informants were talking about the long, narrow, motorized wooden boat hanging off the back of the ship.Steve had pointed it out to me, joking that I needn’t worry about the Monteiro sinking because the captain would just lower it, get in, and putt-putt off to find someone to rescue us.

By noon on Thursday, it seemed clear we must be approaching Alvaraes. Jen’s map showed the town, and when Steve and I descended to the lowest deck, a strapping Brazilian guy soon joined us. “Are you going to Alvaraes too?” I asked him in Portuguese. He assented, which reassured me that the riverboat wasn’t about to pass the town without stopping.

But no one made any move to lower the launch from the back of the riverboat. Instead, two scruffy guys driving even scruffier looking crafts approached from the land. Aha! We realized THESE were the means by which we would get to shore.

That’s when things got ugly. The burly Brazilian elbowed his way to where the boat’s railing had been opened. He hefted a huge sack crammed with Brazil nuts down into the bobbing motorized canoe which was about 5 feet below our feet. With aggressive determination, he grabbed another huge bag, and another, while not one soul made a move to help me and my suitcase and backpack from the deck down into the increasingly overladen little vessel. As it sank lower and lower, my temper flared. Swearing and pushing my way forward, I dropped my suitcase into the boat then descended (backpack and purse strapped to my body). Steve followed, and by the time he took his thwart, the middle of the boat rode just inches above the cafe-au-lait-colored river. (No life preservers added to the load. There were none.) Steve shot the following photo, testimony to the fact that at least our adventure amused many of the Monteiro’s passengers.Here’s what the view from our craft looked like:

Jen shot video during the most comedic moments and sent me a clip. Although I don’t usually try to insert video, I will give this a shot (and fix it at home if it’s unviewable now.)

In this fashion, we zoomed toward the town and arrived about 5 minutes later, where Choca awaited. So it all turned out fine, except we were too rattled to press Choca to help us buy our onward tickets. We hope to accomplish this soon. In the meantime, we’re in one of the strangest places we’ve ever visited. We expect to see a lot more of it tomorrow.