August 16, 2016
After lazy days in Alter do Chão, we begin to feel all softened and in need to go back to hardship. I got self-indulgent enough yesterday to get a manicure and pedicure for the astronomical amount of 30R (10$). In fact, I’ve been so lazy so far that I almost feel sorry for those who can’t read Y’s accounts in French, as they are far more detailed and rigorous than my very impressionistic notes. His could serve as a guide for the descent of the Amazon. So, we’re done with beaches, passion fruit juices and caipirinhas. Back to prison food!
We took the bus back to Santarem this morning. The road is still as bumpy as it is was last time. We easily found the departure pier for Macapa, got our tickets on the São Francisco de Assisi, hung our hammocks, dumped our bags in the cabin and hit the town in search of victuals for the next 36 hours. The heat is no less torrid here in Santarem than elsewhere, but a breeze coming from the Tapajos makes it somewhat more bearable. Santarem has a little flavor of Salvador de Bahia as I imagine it with its two toy-like, pastel-colored colonial churches. The riverside promenade is typical of any working harbor: wall-to-wall shops offering cables, anchors, harpoons, fishing nets, machetes, chicken wire, building materials, saddles, hammocks, bags of various cereals, birds, puppies and hamsters in cages, heaps of fruit (identifiable and non-identifiable), provisions in bulk, anything and everything.
At a little kiosk where they sell juices and various cold drinks, we see the same and only indigenous we’ve seen yesterday in Alter do Chão, and since our departure. By that I mean the only one corresponding to the image one has of an Amazonian Indian: face paint, long hair, loincloth and neck and ear adornments. The lobe of his right ear is elongated to accommodate one long feather. Apart from that, he’s extremely handsome in an “in your face” brand of exoticism.
When we return to the pier bearing heavy bags with bottles of water, fruit, cookies and a new hammock for Y, we notice to our great dismay that the berth where our ship was waiting is now empty. Moment of… slight worry, until we are explained, at least I think I understand, that the São Francisco has gone on an errand (???) and will be back shortly… We dejectedly cross the street to sit in the shade and observe iguanas, hoping that we understood the answer properly and weighing the options if ever our boat doesn’t come back.
Take a flight to Macapa and wait for the arrival of the ship? Y. doesn’t have his passport. That might be complicated. In this hot harbor, sitting on cement benches with our plastic bags, we feel – and probably look like – street people. So much so that three elderly men push us away so that they can set up their game of dominoes.
The São Francisco came back from doing its “errand”. It won’t be leaving until 6pm tonight. Doubtful it will leave on time. At least, this one, in comparison with the Manaus-Santarem, is practically empty and we might have some breathing space between the hammocks. On the boat next to ours, a sailor is trying to straighten the blade of a propellor, he hits the cast iron blade with a bar with resounding “boings” at a rhythm of several per minute. He’s been at it for an hour. But at least, they haven’t started the music yet. Between two evils, which one is the least annoying? The music definitely. We can’t hear it too much from the cabin but the poor souls sleeping on deck are in for all-night concert.
By six, we realize that we haven’t eaten since breakfast, except for a juice here and there. As I go down to the lower deck to see if anything is cooking, an exodus of lemmings start coming down the stairs: an uninterrupted flow. Dinner must be ready. As we go deeper into the bowels of the ship, the rumble of the engines become deafening and, in a dark room, we find the passengers queuing for some sort of unappetizing soup, but worse is the hellish atmosphere of that noisy penumbra. I’m not sure I can eat there. When Y. asks if I’d mind very much if he skipped dinner, I seize the occasion and desperately escape, running up the steep ladder as fast as a monkey. Dinner: a mango, a spoonful of peanut butter, a few Brazil nuts, a chocolate chip cookie and water. That will have to do until tomorrow.
We find one of the members of our tribe or “family” on the boat. He is Anatole, a young Frenchman having worked for a French IT company in Brazil and traveling on his way back to his next job in Luxembourg. He is every mother’s dream of the perfect son or son-in-law.
Wednesday 17th August- Aboard the São Francisco on the way to Macapa This is the next to last stretch on the Amazon ferries before Belem. We’re getting a bit out-of-breath, out of nourishment, out of patience with the monotony of life on river boats and, in Y’s case, out of sleep. As Anatole says:this is a test in patience. Good for the soul! The river has morphed into an ocean. Most of the time, the coast is now invisible and from the flat, still surfaces we’ve been sailing on so far, we’re suddenly hit by waves that violently rock the boat. The wind has risen and after yesterday’s sweltering heat, we can now use a sweater on our own “private terrace”. There is a wide deck in front of our cabin and since no one has had the idea to hang their hammocks in front of our door this time, we dragged two chairs from the bar and here we are, as cozy as on any luxury cruise ship, except for the food of course. A barge sails on the river. On its board 350 or so enormous trunks of recently felled Amazonian trees. The massacre continues. Each one is said to be worth around $10,000. One more deforested area. Sad.
At 1am, we wake up as in the middle of a storm. We seem to be hit by torrents of water and the ship is rocking dangerously. What is going on? I badly need to go to the bathroom but the deck must be drenched and the wind might just decide to throw me overboard. Outside, all is calm, not a wrinkle on the river and everybody slumbers peacefully in their hammocks. That storm must be reserved for the entertainment of the third deck bourgeois (sissies) passenger. I took a pill just in case and went back to sleep until Y woke me up at 6, for heaven’s sake! Time to pack and go. I follow bleary-eyed, bid our adieus to Anatole, buy our ticket for the Macapa-Belem Saturday. Twenty-four hours. We shall drink that cup to the bitter end.