Colombia to Brazil – En route to Manaus
August 3rd, 00:30 Still aboard the Iquitos-Santa Rosa “Rapido”
We arrive in Santa Rosa. A few passengers, among them Pauline, one of the French girls, are quasi-apoplectic. The trip, that should have lasted ten hours, took 18 to get us to Santa Rosa.
There, a pirogue is waiting to take us to the Colombian side: six passengers at a time. We seem dangerously overloaded but we make it.
Where are we going? Not quite sure… Do you remember the name of the hotel? Malaka, Moluka, Malako? One minute, I have it on my phone. But my phone is out of battery…
We ask a few tuk-tuk drivers, they have no idea what we’re talking about, until one suddenly lights up, gets the name right Malokamazonas and takes us there. We will find out that there is no point in asking for any information or directions: you will always get an answer but they’ll tell you anything to save face.
We are with Thomas and Alexandra, a young French couple, in search of a room,but they find Malok-whatever too expensive. We agree to meet in the morning, get back on the pirogue and go back to Santa Rosa to get our Peruvian exit stamp, and then to meet again for dinner.
Leticia has little charm, a frontier post mostly, with non-existent urban planning and in great need of a major cleanup.
But I have a mission, I am in search of the mythical Victoria Regia, a giant water lily that can reach a diameter as wide as two meters. We are told to go at 5pm to the Parque Santander where thousands of parakeets congregate at dusk, we should also find some Victorias Regias in the pond. We missed the parakeets but went later at night, after dinner. One can’t see very well but enough to tell that there are large water lilies, but not that large really. The salient feature is that they are covered in bird droppings and feathers, and so are the soles of my shoes that I will have to scrape clean afterwards. Disappointed but not beaten.
Tomorrow, I insist we pass to the Peruvian side again and into the Marasha natural reserve where, I’m promised, I’ll find the sought after beauties. We hike for two hours through the jungle, take another pirogue but no sign of anything resembling a water lily, but lo and behold, here must be about 5 or 6 tattered and apparently moth-eaten lily pads. The flowering season has passed and they apparently only bloom at night. Totally underwhelming. I will report if I have any transcendent vision in the days to come but I’m about to lose faith.
What we found though were giant termite nests. Y. ate three of them. He said they tasted like peppermint. I took his word for it. Now I’ll know what to do with the critters gnawing at my roof. I’ll douse them in chocolate and serve them as after-dinner mints.
One intriguing scene took place on the shore as we were paddling by: 4 police officers by the look of them, all in black, carrying two smallish coffins and laying them down on a heap of garbage. I doubt very much that it would be a Colombian custom to burn their dead, this is not the Ganges after all. And in the garbage dump? And why should the police have anything to do with that? And if they’re trying to get rid of embarrassing evidence, why do it in full daylight?
We asked of course. Those guys are the Lanceros, the Colombian special forces. What were they up too? Nobody had the faintest idea.
August 5th – Aboard the M/N M.Fernandes between Tabatinga and Manaus
Three more days aboard. Comfort still non-existent, except perhaps for a private bathroom. The cabin is tiny, somewhat cleaner than the previous one, has air-conditioning and no window… Just a bit claustrophobic.
I’m writing from my hammock on the lower deck. Next to me, a young mother sings to her little daughter in a beautiful contralto voice.
After a while, you become immune to the proximity of others. You just let yourself be lulled by the rhythm of life on board, that is total sloth and terrible food, but I take it as cure: nothing to worry about, nothing to do, nothing to plan, the perfect antidote against over-indulgence and unrequited stress. It suits me perfectly.
We should be in Manaus in three days, but then maybe not. Who knows what might happen until then…
First stop: the port of Benjamin Constant. Benjamin Constant? Why? Isn’t it a 19th Century author of overly sentimental novelettes? I vaguely remember reading one, a long, long time ago. What does he have to do with this little port? Well, it appears that Adolphe‘s author has a Brazilian namesake: Benjamin Constant Botelho de Magalhães who, influenced by Auguste Comte, was the founder of the positivist movement in Brazil which, in the 19th Century was considered key to social reformation, criticizing slavery, monarchy and the Church as constraining the natural progress of the nation. We go ashore to buy tangerines and practically miss the boat. Staying and settling down in Benjamin Constant doesn’t appeal in the least.
Dinner was a complicated affair. It is served at Manaus hour (one hour ahead), That is between 5 – 6:30 pm by our watches, 4 – 5:30 pm by Manaus time. By the time we show up, it’s over. On a table near the engine room sits a huge pot of lukewarm soup with several prehistoric-looking fish floating within. We are not sure if it’s our dinner’s leftovers or the crew’s. One guy unceremoniously ladles one whole marsh-colored very dead fish in my plate. Then, another soup shows up, brimming bowls of a thickish broth with noodles, potato, carrot, chicken as usual, and… cilantro of course! It’s not that bad with lots of hot sauce. Discreetly, we return the ugly fish to its pot. All that gulped down unceremoniously among the deafening noise of the engines.
Above, on deck, it finally got cooler, the sun is setting, the music has stopped and the mosquitoes are ready to attack. From our departure point in Tabatinga, Brazil, the Amazon changes its name and becomes the Solimões River. It doesn’t seem as wide as it should for the many islands masking its width, but it’s still majestic and impressive. We pass the occasional ramshackle village: a sun-reflective scenery of corrugated iron broken by a few red-tiles roofs.
Antiquated pirogues and rusty boathouses seemingly abandoned on the shores.
By 8:30, lights are out, the lower deck is silent as everyone already seems to be in a deep slumber. Sleeping is another complicated affair. Not so easy to find a comfortable position in the hammock and to keep one’s necessary possessions for the night in a place where they won’t keep bumping you on the nose or elsewhere. When the baby in the next hammock started crying, around 1am, we retreated to the cabin. Beaten again.
By now, everybody will have understood that this trip is not much about sightseeing but rather an expedition, a trial in endurance. There is something oddly reassuring about being able to withstand discomfort and still feel happy.
7:30. Breakfast call. I can’t move. Y. brings me a cup of hot milk. Hot milk! I don’t think so. Still in my night clothes, I find the way to the “dining room”, grab a couple of pieces of corn bread and excruciatingly sweet coffee and climb on the upper deck to have my breakfast in solitude. The peanut butter I brought with me makes it somehow more palatable. I’m not too sociable at 7:30 in the morning. Y. is below, chatting in the refectory.
Around 10:30, we stop in Santo Antonio do Iça in front of a fading structure that announces itself as Mercadinho Tucuxi. For the second time, the ESFRON (Equipo do Segurança da frontera) climbs aboard for yet another inspection. They are strapping young men in black uniforms and insist every time to go through your things, ask for passport, ticket. When Y. shows them his French navy card, they usually back up and leave without a fuss.
About our fellow travelers: mostly Brazilians traveling from one Amazonian post to another, a very spare scattering of tourists (six of us on this boat of 400 passengers) mostly young Europeans (French and Portuguese), these are our social contacts. Young professionals traveling for a year or two around South America, around the world. They are fearless, fun, well-educated and well-behaved. They make us feel as if we belonged to the same generation, even though they are our children’s age.
This rhythm is not difficult to get accustomed to. Easy. You fall into a sort of semi-coma from which you emerge from time to time,not too often. Nothing matters anymore, the course of the day is barely interrupted by three better forgotten meals. You read in the hammock, you write a little, and very lazily as everyone can tell.
We are still on the Solimões river, wide cappuccino-colored ribbon edged far away with ragged, jungly borders in various shades of green.
Gone are the muddy Peruvian shores. We pass the morning on the top deck until the sun beating on the roof turns it into an oven. There is a light breeze. Afternoon is hammock time below where it is cooler, trying to avoid being beaten up by a neighbor’s foot, knee or elbow.
We make friends -acquaintance – Anaïs, a young French girl traveling South America solo after three years in French Guiana. She is also a solo trekker: three days to a week in solitude with tent, gas heater, food and water. Intrepid!
Maria is from a vintners’ family in Portugal, they produce vinho verde and she plans to take over the family business. She is back from a few months residence in a Mendoza winery, next step Bordeaux, then New Zealand and Austria. We all speak a happy mix of French, English, Portuguese and Spanish.
There is a TV screen on the upper deck with some sort of a wheel besides controlling the angle of the antenna. Someone is constantly fiddling with that, trying to catch a network. We get a very snowy picture of the Olympics. Volleyball between Brazil and Italy. An entirely male audience, they don’t seem to be too rabidly involved.
A Colombian man reads a book by …. Irving Wallace: “Las Nymphomanas”!!! Sounds juicy! He wears a star of David. I ask him if he is Jewish, he answers he’s not, it’s only a symbol of the equality of male and female principles. As he explains, he gestures towards his nether parts.
I think it’s time for me to retreat to my hammock, particularly after Anaïs put me checkmate at chess. Shameful, considering that she was playing for the first time. Y. won’t play: his mind is too busy studying maps, calculating distances, dimensions of the boat, tonnage and elaborating strategies to improve Brazilian merchant marine. He’d probably beat me to it as well.
Big game of gin rummy at night. Two decks of cards, too many players and much too many bugs. We stop before the second round before getting completely devoured. The game was getting chaotic and the players restless and too busy swatting swarms of insects to concentrate on the game.
On that chapter, a lot of insects seem to have become immune to Deet. They bite nevertheless and through your clothes, the little fiends. Two wasp-like killers bit me simultaneously on the knee and the hip. It stung like hell. Hope they were healthy specimens. However they don’t itch as much as our Antiguean sancudos.
Luck willing, we should arrive in Manaus tomorrow afternoon.