This time I was a bit wiser about the boat experience, and we arrived early to hang our hammocks up high. We also made a trip to the supermarket beforehand, to buy bread, crackers, vegetables, tinned tuna, and a large bottle of cachaça. I wasn’t into the boat food at ALL and I didn’t intend to eat it this time! We even learned that there was a small hotplate on board, so I bought some noodles and powdered soup mix as well.
On board we met two German girls and a British girl who were also part of the Couchsurfing network, and I was relieved to have the chance to speak some English for a while. I know I should have been learning and practicing Portuguese, but…. You know…
We spent a lot of time on the top of the boat, tanning our legs and chatting about our Couchsurfing experiences, reading books, and making macramé bracelets. During the night we opened the cachaça and some juice, and decided to play some games to pass the time.
We played a couple of different card games, but found that there was no place to sit on the boat where the wind didn’t continue blowing the cards off the table! We moved onto a few rounds of “I have never” (an evil drinking game) but decided we didn’t really want to get that drunk on the boat. Eventually moved onto ‘The Rizla Game’, which proved to be the winner!
In the evening we went back to the square to have another caipirinha. The area was full of ‘hippies’ , which is the common name given to artisans – travellers who make jewelry from macramé or wire, often with dreadlocks, and usually smoking their funny-smelling cigarettes. But these hippies weren’t smoking, they were running a clown skills workshop for children! It was a lot of fun to watch – there must have been 40 or 50 people in the square, and they were learning to juggle, climb rope, climb on top of each other, and twirl batons. The children were having a great time, laughing and trying to better each other.
The nightlife was pretty much non-existent after sundown in Alter do Chao, so we generally slept quite early and woke up early to appreciate the beaches.
After a couple of days, Juan had to leave to continue his journey, but Carlos and I decided to stay on a bit longer. We found a man renting out paddleboats, which I confess to loving, but the best thing was an enormous swan boat that awoke the child inside me. Carlos was too embarrassed to translate for me, so I went over the guy and asked him in portunhol how much it would cost to rent the swan boat.
After I’d closed the transaction I of course forced Carlos to join me in the swan, which he did without too much complaining. In fact, the boat was heavy, difficult to turn, and kind of a pain, but we did get some excellent photos from the experience.
After a week of this – fish, beer, caipirinhas, beaches – it was time to get moving again.
Back on the boat!
The next day we hired kayaks and went out to explore the area.
Alter do Chao is at the junction of two rivers, Tapajós and Amazonas, which don’t mix. Because of this, one side of the island has brown water, and the other side is bright blue. You can see from my pictures the huge difference in the water.
The size and shape of Alter do Chao differs hugely at different times of year, as the rivers rise and fall. In our kayak trip we came across the roofs of bars and restaurants. When we were there, only the thatched tops were visible, and as we got closer we found that refrigerators and other appliances had been secured to the ceiling with rope! Later in the year, there would be a stretch of beach here, and the these bars would be full of tourists sipping caipirinhas and eating fish.
In Alter do Chao I also discovered the key to the mystery of blonde leg hair. You see, ever since I’d arrived in Manaus, I’d noticed a lot of women in this region had dark colouring, but blonde arm and leg hairs. I’d found this odd, but of course – it’s not something you can ask a stranger about. In Alter do Chao we came across numerous women on the beach covering themselves with a kind of white cream and laying in the sun for a while, before washing it off in the water.
Seemed more complicated than waxing or shaving to me, but oh well… each to their own…
Carlos was the kind of guy who laughed at you when you make a mistake, and this drives me crazy. Don’t patronize me you jerk… it’s your freaking language, of COURSE you speak it better than me! Arrgghh! I stopped trying altogether because of the supreme irritation I felt every time he chuckled at my errors. And of course, with Carlos around, I didn’t HAVE to speak Portuguese. I make him translate for me everywhere, sending him to buy beers or speak to the staff when necessary. My Portuguese was not coming along at all, and I hadn’t even started looking at the book Suelem had lent me.
It was ok; I still had plenty of time…
The next day we pulled into Santarem, and the 3 of us caught a bus to Alter do Chao, which is only about an hour away. We found ourselves a cheap hotel where we all shared a room, and changed immediately into beach gear.
Alter do Chao was beautiful! In fact, in 2009 it was chosen by English newspaper The Guardian as the most beautiful freshwater beach in the world. The town was tiny, and the beaches were lovely. It was already afternoon so we didn’t do much on the first day, just ate a fish lunch on the beach (yep… I had already decided that I was going to at least start eating fish), and then had some caipirinhas in the square. Actually, this was my first ever caipirinha – a typical Brazilian cocktail made from cachaça, lime, and sugar.
Delicious. I saw more of these caipirinhas in my future.
The food was all about the red meat. We were served a kind of stew with meat and vegetables, and the best I could do was pick the meat out and put it on Carlos’s plate. Of course, the liquid was all meaty, and the vegetable were cooked in the juice of the meat, but as they say – beggars can’t be choosers. So mostly I ate bread, rice and some meat-soaked vegetables.
Yes, my vegetarianism was looking precarious here in Brazil. This was not a veggie-friendly country right here.
The second day on the boat was a little quieter than the second, the novelty having worn off somewhat. I did a bit of reading, and drank considerably less. We saw a couple of dolphins that day, and Carlos explained the differences to me between the pink and grey dolphins. The pink dolphin’s dorsal fin is shaped like a hump rather than wave, and they tend to be less playful than grey dolphins. In fact, we saw a number of times in the journey that grey dolphins often jump right out of the water, whereas pink dolphins barely show their fin as they leave and reenter the river.
We met a friendly Spanish guy named Juan on the boat who started hanging out with us. This didn’t help my Portuguese, of course, since Carlos started speaking Spanish too. But actually, Carlos was not proving particularly useful to the development of my Portuguese. In fact, he was positively detrimental.
I wanted to go upstairs and sleep on the top deck, but I had no mattress, sleeping bag, pillow or ANYTHING, and apart from that they’d washed the floors and it was all wet up there.
I looked for another place to hang my hammock but the place was packed – there was nowhere else.
I eventually tried to curl up on the floor on top of my backpack but it was the most uncomfortable thing EVER. Carlos awoke to the sound of me whining and crying in frustration, swapped hammocks with me, and went back to sleep. The woman in his face didn’t seem to bother him at all!
The next morning when I awoke, the woman on top of me had either left the boat or moved her hammock. Not surprising really, given my incessant complaining and the elbows to her back!
The boat food was pretty bad. It was around this time that I’d started rethinking my vegetarianism. Several times in Manaus I’d found myself with nothing to eat but fish, rice, beans and salad. I know, rice beans and salad sounds like reasonable vegetarian food, but know this… beans in Brazil are cooked with big chunks of fatty red meat, and the ‘salad’ in and around Manaus consisted of slices of raw tomato and onion. I don’t even like raw tomato that much, and let’s face it… who loves big chunks of raw onion??
And now, on the boat, the only meal that was vegetarian was the breakfast. Bread and coffee. I guess I’d been prepared to eat fish, but how stupid I had been, imagining there would be fish on the boat!
The first thing to go sour for me was the music. The 80s music was fun until we discovered that it was one of only two CDs on the boat, and the bartender switched back and forth between that and a forró CD, which was pretty bad even BEFORE I heard it 600 times. After 24 hours on the boat, I never wanted to hear Marika or Belinda Carlisle again.
The next thing was the beer. After the cold ones ran out, they began to be kind of… nearly cold. I really, REALLY don’t like warm beer, particularly when it’s overpriced as well.
Still, we got by, even danced a few forró tunes. Until the nighttime.
Carlos and I went to sleep quite early (having been drinking in the sun all day), and I passed out like a dead person. However, at 2am I awoke and discovered why people advised ‘hang your hammock high’ – there was a woman in the hammock above me which was about 3 inches from my face. I couldn’t move or roll over without shoving her in the back with my shoulder or elbow! It was awful, I was so uncomfortable, and knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep like that. I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and this just wouldn’t work.
I tried to wake Carlos up hoping he would help me but he was pretty insistent in staying asleep.
Right then – I rolled out of my hammock (elbow, shoulder, knee to the woman’s back) and started looking around for an alternative arrangement.
The boat trip got off to a great start. We boarded at 10am, hung our hammocks on the sleeping deck downstairs, and went straight up to the top deck. A fantastic 80s CD was playing loudly, with such wonders as Rick Astley, Pet Shop Boys and Kylie Minogue. Well… there was nothing to do but order a cold beer right away.
As they say, it was 5pm somewhere in the world! (Afghanistan, actually – I looked it up).
Carlos and I put our feet up, popped a couple of cold ones open, and covered ourselves in sunscreen. We had 2 full days on the boat to Santarem, at which point we planned to get off, spend a few days in Alter do Chao (‘Caribbean of the Amazonas’, the propaganda said), and then continue down the river for another two days to Belem. Until then, of course, I planned to hang out in the sun, work on my tan, learn some Portuguese, drink some beer, and see some river dolphins.
As the boat left, I was filled with an excitement I hadn’t felt in a while. I’d really been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Years in fact, since a couple of my friends had done a similar trip through Brazil and told me about it! The music was great, the beer was cold, the company was good, and sleeping in hammocks was awesome..
Little did I know that ALL of this would change in the next few days.
Who could have thrown such an adorable creature into a trash pile???
I rescued the distressed little puppy from the trash and brought him back to my curious group of friends, while he whimpered and cried and tried to lick my face at the same time, kicking his legs trying to get up into the safety of my neck and hair. He was the most adorably ugly little dog I’d ever seen, with tiny flattened ears, big bulging goldfish eyes, and a squashed nose. Obviously, we took him home.
We gave him some milk and Marley named him Fedorento, which means ‘stinking’, in light of the fact that he came from a trash pile. He gave him a soapy bath which he tolerated without too much fuss. The poor little thing was so distressed he cried constantly, stumbling around the floor on his newborn legs looking for someone to hold him. Marley promised to take care of him and find him a home while we were travelling.
Suelem gave me a book to help me study Portuguese while I had time to kill on the boat, which would be really helpful, since I hadn’t actually started learning the language yet. All the people in the house spoke English and I was getting lazy. On the boat for sure, on the boat I’d learn Portuguese!
A few days later we were at the port, backpacks on, buying our tickets.
Oh how I love boats… this was going to be great.
I had to be honest… I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the sights of Manaus. I just wanted to stay somewhere air conditioned, perform some necessary tasks like washing my clothes, learn some Portuguese, and prepare for my boat trip.
So that’s what I did.
Apart from that, I spent a lot of time in the internet café downstairs correcting student writings for Englishtown. My hosts were surprised that I was lacking the expected tourist curiosity, but since none of them were actually from Manaus, nobody was offended!
We did go out for a drink one night with some other Couchsurfers in the area which was nice. The hot weather made for some lovely nights in which to sit outdoors and drink cold beer, and the central plaza we sat in was actually quite lovely. Marley and Suelem came with us, and it was a really pleasant evening. We met some nice local guys and their foreign guests, and conversation flowed as easily as the icy cold draught beer!
Later that night, we caught a bus to our area, and were walking the rest of the way when we heard a cry. We stopped to listen, and sure enough, a sad wailing cry was coming from the trash pile by the side of the road. It sounded to me like the cry of an infant removed from his mother, and I was going in to find out who was making it.