Category Archives: On the Amazon – Between Peru and Brazil


We took the flight to Macapa this morning, after a last stroll on the Rua Santo Antonio, that used to be the Champs-Elysées of Belem in its long gone golden age.
Its most elegant store, “Paris en America” remains, with its Art nouveau decor, massive chandeliers and double staircase.teatro
Bolts of cheap fabrics have replaced the models shipped directly from Paris.  But the street has an undeniable atmosphere with its hagglers and little kiosks selling every gadget one can imagine.  Belem has somewhat of a schizophrenic personality: the elegant and well maintained, side by side with filth and dilapidation.

So, here we are, back in “beautiful” Macapa, the iron town!  We arrive around 2:30, take a cab to the bus station with Daya, a French-speaking Brazilian born grandmother and resident of Cayenne.  We follow her like ducklings: she knows where to go and what to do.
The bus is not leaving until 6pm, so we have a good three hours to kill, waiting in the sweltering heat.  I try to spot a restaurant nearby that might have air-conditioning.  None, but some sort of a hotel across the street, Posada Ester.

We go in and sit by the fan waiting for someone to ask us what we’re doing here.  A few girls, all obese and wearing short shorts are lolling in what can pass as a lobby. A transvestite minces by, also in short shorts.  A fat, rather menacing dragon of a woman finally asks us if she can help. She must be the madam and this has every aspect of a brothel.  “Oiapoque?” she asks.  We play innocent, not wanting to reveal that we are using her fine establishment as the waiting room for our bus to Oiapoque on the Guyanese border.  “Não, não, we’re waiting for a friend, she says she’d pick us up here.” She takes interest in my fan, borrows it.  I’m wondering whether she has any intention to keep it in exchange for her hospitality.  Her smile has something vitriolic about it, but she decides to tolerate us.  Three girls and a guy go upstairs.  I hope for them the room as A/C.


Lots of traffic at Posada Ester

We decide to leave before getting into trouble.
The bus leaves on time, at 6pm, we have inherited the very last seats in the bus, but two are still unoccupied and we start fantasizing about the space we’ll have to ourselves.  Short-lived fantasy, at the next stop, an entire family gets in: papa, mama, a toddler and a baby in full vocalizing form.  Ear plugs a must!  But…but… why is my seat wet?  It is definitely wet!  Condensation?  Something else?  Better not to know but it smells sort of funky in here.
Nevertheless at 9pm, all lights are turned on.  Everybody to the bathroom and the trough. I’m barely awake and wonder if we will be awakened every three hours for such pit stops.
I went back to sleep until 5am, if one can call sleep that constant repositioning in one very exiguous space.
5am – Oiapoque Bus Station

IMG_1166We have to wait until 8am to have our passports stamped by Brazilian immigration.  A very enterprising lady has set a stand where she prepares breakfast.  Fried egg in a bun, manioc pancake and coffee.  She moves like a well-oiled robot, not a superfluous gesture, it’s almost like watching a ballet.
I opt for the manioc pancake.  It has the look of a little white washcloth and the texture of a sponge.  Taste: non-existent.  If I continue on this diet of manioc, rice, potatoes, white breads and cake, I’ll probably come back undernourished and as barrel-shaped as 95% of Brazilians.manioc
We take a cab to the border station, then a launch to Saint-Georges in French Guiana.  I must have my passport stamped again, since we’re now in French territory.  The shuttle driver who must take us back to Cayenne tells us not to worry, he’ll take us to immigration or whatever takes place of it.  He probably assumes that I own a French passport.  Halfway through Cayenne, which is a good two-and-a-half hours away from Saint-Georges, two police officers stop the vehicle and wince at my Canadian passport.  I should have had it stamped in Saint-George, or maybe Cayenne.  No problem, the driver will take us to the police in Cayenne. But, as I thought, this issue has nothing to do with the police but with Immigration.  The police send us to the Airport, but not without severely reprimanding the driver first.
At the Cayenne Airport, same story.  The passport should have been stamped at the border in Saint-George.  The driver offers to drive us back: two and a half hours to go, same to come back.
That is beyond our strength, we have been traveling for more than 24 hours, eaten no real food in that long and enough is enough.  At least he reimbursed our fare, plus the fare to go to Saint-George and back, not that we have any desire to do so.
We take a room at the pretty Palmistes Hotel on the main square of Cayenne, have a well deserved lunch and siesta. We’ll think about that tomorrow.


Hôtel des Palmistes, Cayenne

Tonight is the launching of Ariane 5 and we don’t want to miss the event. The rocket takes off at 7pm, launching two satellites in orbit. It will be much closer and visible than the red spot we were told to watch in the sky.  The rocket boosters spitting fire before separating from the second stage were clearly visible.  For a moment, I felt as if they were to fall upon our heads.images

25th August
At 8 this morning, Yann is at the Gendarmerie with my passport.  The head officer calls the head of Immigration who tells him there shouldn’t be any problem.  That remains to be seen.  It all depends, I guess, on the mood of the Immigration officer on duty when I leave.  For the time being, I’ve entered France illegally as there is no trace of my arrival.
Mulling this over and refusing to worry too much about possibly dire consequences, I have my breakfast (croissant, fruit, guava juice and real coffee, neither instant, nor disgustingly sugary) on the terrace overlooking the Palmistes Square with its colonnades of palmtrees.  I’m happy.


Place des Palmistes, Cayenne

We took possession of the car and checked in at our B&B, a little bit too close for comfort as far as I’m concerned.  I always feel funny, not to say and intruder, in other people’s home.
To be followed…


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From Santarem to Macapa

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.Santarem Church Church Santarem, Brazil 124The 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.Santarem_Para_Brazil_StreetView_KeithRock_CC-BYcornerstore

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.


Anatole et Yann

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.IMG_1100

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.

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Alter do Chão

August 14, 2016

The arrival to Santarem is planned for 12:30, we will therefore be allowed to sleep on board.
At 7am we hit the street, our new “family” (Alexandra, Thomas, Ed and Tania) in tow.  It’s just like traveling with our children since their ages go from 25 to 38. Breakfast on a corner cafe of rolls with melted cheese and sweet coffee.a_005
The 33 km to Alter do Chão seem a lot longer since the road puts Montreal to shame with its potholes, but no orange cones in sight, now or ever.
This is where we’ve decided to take a few days of farniente, not that we were terribly busy on the boats, but they nevertheless tend to wear you out .  So much so that I seem to be napping all the time and I’m anything but a napper.  Is it the Amazon, the heat, the malaria pills, sheer laziness? Maybe all of the above.
Alter do Chão claims to be the Jamaïca and Saint-Tropez of Brazil, the most beautiful beach in Brazil minus the ocean.alter do chao
Our hotel is on its own private beach on the Río Tapajos and quite charming except for being isolated from the main beach of Ilha do Amor (Island of Love) by a 35-minute walk.  Nothing! If it wasn’t for the unbearable heat during the day.  It seems hugely impractical and taxis are not easy to catch.  They must be hiding somewhere since there is practically no traffic, except for rowboats crossing to the island.

It is actually everything it claims to be: a white sand Caribbean beach with clear turquoise waters and thickets of  seaside and coconut trees.  You can also seek refuge under one of the many palapas where they served grilled fish and various local specialties whose name elude us.ILHA-POST-edited-630x350  Our feet in water, we had a huge and delicious grilled fish (surubim) and then swam in the shallow soft waters, warm as your bathtub,worrying only slightly about flesh-eating piranhas, manta rays and teeny-tiny little parasites (candiru) that will climb up your urinary system and raise havoc until you get yourself to the hospital.  Which means: don’t pee in the water!  I’m told the little creepy-crawlies prefer men, so I’m not taking any chance, but I think it’s just another Amazonian legend…
The “kids” were planning a 2-hour trek up the one little hillock of the region and I followed.  Y.  declined.
It was a bit of a steep climb for my flip-flops but worth the effort.  The panorama truly gave you the bird’s eye view of the Amazon as one dreams it: water and trees all the way to the horizon on 350°.


With Thomas


At the end of the climb

As we emerged in the sunlight, millions of gnats stampeded into our noses and  mouths or came drowning themselves in the mixture of sweat, mosquito repellent and sun-block on my arms and legs.  The latter didn’t prevent me from getting sunburnt.
We came down just in time to catch a motorboat to a quasi-deserted beach to watch the sunset as we lay immersed in warm water.alterdo chao sunset

Guess who took that picture? Not me…nana

On the edge of the plaza, there is a man with a cart making caipirinhas: lemon, tangerine, pineapple, ginger, passion fruit and a green herb that makes your tongue numb.  He speaks some French and his stand doesn’t look that clean.  Everybody in our little “family” gets greatly enthusiastic and don’t seem to care when he fishes ice chips from a dubious looking container.  I taste mine that has a strange but not unexpected flavor of stale ice.  I decline, expecting to become the head nurse within a few hours.  But, so far, we are all still alive with no apparent evil side effects.
Next stop?  Macapa.  When?  Don’t know…

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Manaus, 8 August 2016
One hundred years ago, Manaus might have looked like a delicious piece of confection: gingerbready buildings of butter cream and chocolate icing, strawberry hued summer puddings, blood orange sherbet houses, pistachio ice cream bombs. palacio_da_justica palacio-rio-negroSome of that heritage has been preserved, mostly in the neighborhood of the Opera.  Most of it is derelict, abandoned, falling into leprous ruin.manaus-houses  I first guess, and it is afterwards confirmed, that the Brazilian government in general, and Manaus in particular, are none too concerned with either the environment and even less with their architectural heritage.
We disembarked the M/N M. Fernandes by mid-afternoon.  It was about time.  Three night and three days is about the most one can stand of discomfort, bad food and boredom.
The harbor feels like a well-heated frying pan where we act as mosquito-catchers. We are trying to get another passage to Santarem in two-days time.  I go aboard the N/M Nelio Correa and try to negotiate a price.  I’m told we’d do better on the street.  Non-stop back and forth with luggage, on and off the boat with a Brazilian couple that speaks both English and Spanish trying to help. Y. thinks he’s lost his glasses, which adds some spice to the situation (they were in his bag).  The language is a bit of a problem to say the least.  I had tried to learn some Portuguese, but the Duolingo class I followed on line taught me the most useless sentences, like “The tiger drinks milk” and “I have a butterfly”!  Not many chances to use those with, the result being that I remain tongue-tied or trying to build a sentence with Spanish, Portuguese, English and Italian words (why Italian, I have no idea).

It’s all pretty chaotic until we decide to wait for the ticket and get into a cab.  Manaus’ hotels are a sorry bunch.  Looking for 5-stars on (I feel ready for a bit of luxury), the one place with the highest rating happens to be a youth hostel.  So there we go.  No dormitory for us but an impeccably clean and comfortable room with full bathroom.  They even made some effort to decorate it with simple but pretty rattan accessories.
The first impression of Manaus is pretty dismal: a beehive set in a sauna, decrepitude devouring most of the charm that might have been hers during the years of the rubber boom, a city in decomposition.  Everything seems to close at 5 and our walk back towards the harbor to find tickets for Santarem is not exactly reassuring. Besides, being on a boat for three days has made me lose my land footing and I walk on the pavement as if on the river, swaying like a drunken sailor.  It will take me a few hours and a coconut ice cream to regain my footing.
The area near the hotel makes up for the rest: parks, a huge plaza paved, as in Portugal with tiles creating a pattern of black and white waves.plaza-manausYoung people play a soft combination of guitar and bongo, along with a lone violinist.  And you can eat, drink a local caipirinha (local aguardiente with lime, sugar and egg white) or have ice cream on a terrace.caipirinha_max
Nightime brings some relief from the heat and sitting on the plaza in the shade of the opera makes up for the rest of the day.  The food doesn’t.  The menu offers amazonian fish.  I order pirarucu or dragon fish,a huge reddish fish with hard scales resembling a dragon’s.



We met some in Peru and their mouth is like a vacuum cleaner as they aspirate food with a great big rumble.  It tastes like mud in a mucilaginous sauce that is supposed to be combining coconut milk and palm oil.  It’s also sprinkled with plenty of coriander.  I forgot to say: “Não coentro”.
Thank god for caipirinha that helped some of the mess go down.

August 9 – Manaus
The Teatro Amazonas, at first sight, seems somewhat ungainly.  It is said to have been built to resemble the Opéra Garnier, but except for the dome covered with tiles in the colors of Brazil: green, yellow and red, it’s massive proportions bear no resemblance to those of its model in Paris.  It was built at a time when the wealthy rubber barons strived to build their little Paris in the Amazonian jungle.  Nice effort, but it might not have been entirely successful.


Teatro Amazonas

We visited the teatro which, inside, is a fine example of Belle Époque interior decoration: gilded stucco and faux finishes, frescoes with mythological subjects of nymphs and pudgy cherubim and, in the ceiling of the concert hall, a fresco of the Eiffel tower seen from below, just as if you were crouching underneath, the spaces between its four pillars bearing more pink-cheeked goddesses and muses.


Those have to be two pillars of the Eiffel Tower

A rehearsal is in progress.  Marcelo Mourão Gomes is the danseur étoile of the Teatro de las Amazonas.  He seems to be rehearsing sequences of steps without really tying them together into a real dancing sequence.  A piano plays and he starts over and over: pirouette, arabesque, attitude, grand fouetté.  A dialogue in English goes along with the steps between the dancer and the choreographer.  He will perform solo for two nights, but we will be gone.


Marcelo Mourão Gomes in rehearsal

However, tonight, the Balé folklórico de las Amazônas is performing and it’s free, so we’ll get a chance to come back.
After an interminable documentary in Portuguese that almost sent us packing, the dancers swarmed onstage.  Classically trained dancers interpreting modern choreographies improvised on Amazonian themes.  Wide skirts (polleras) like butterfly, parrot wings or wild tropical blooms fly around, shimmering under lighting that gives them an unreal stained-glass transparency.


Balé folclórico de Amazônas


Balé folclórico de Amazônia

On the plaza afterwards, we find Alexandra and Thomas, our friends from Leticia who just flew in.  A few more caipirinhas.  They tell us of their jungle expeditions.  We are keeping ours for Guiana.

August 10
Back on the river

The Nélio Corrêa is set to sail by 11:00, but it is unlikely that we’d stick to that schedule and we won’t leave until 2pm.  At 9am, throngs of people have already invaded the ship and hung their hammocks helter-skelter and on top of each other.  So close that you cannot pass between two hammocks.  I don’t know what gave us the idea to hang one of ours, but I can’t see how we could use it.  After an hour or so, we come to check on it and there is one hung above, one below and it’s flanked on both sides by displeasingly close neighbors.  Might as well snuggle into any hammock with a stranger.


Too close for comfort

When I said the ship was invaded, I do not exaggerate, there is not one square inch of space left as porters bring in merchandise(bags of cement and plumbing tubing); families bide bon voyage to their loved ones embarking for Santarem or Belem and various merchants, screaming and haggling, ply their ware for last minute supply.  The ship seems loaded to twice its capacity and you can’t move onto any of the three decks without bumping into someone.  There is a tiny bar on the upper deck where music will be blaring at top volume for the rest of the trip, same songs over and over again.  I seek refuge in our air-conditioned cabin where I might pass a good amount of time to escape the frenzy outside.  As I try to enter, I see that a pink-haired woman traveling with her two children has installed her hammock right in front of our door.  In the morning, she opens a cooler-sized box and carefully applies a full face of makeup.  Thankfully, the Brazilians seem to be pretty good-natured and not that loud, but that promiscuity is not that easy to take when you’re not accustomed to it.  I can’t imagine what the trip would have been like, had we not taken cabins.  They might not be luxurious and smaller than my closet but they at least offer some privacy and quiet time.
No comment about the food except that the bar offers… sickeningly sweet ham and cheese grilled cheese sandwiches and ramen type noodles.  That should do for two days.

However, the sunsets are spectacular and we’re pretty snug and happy in our air-conditioned closet.sunset

11 August
We learn that O Cisne Branco, one of the two boats we might have taken to Santarem recently had an accident: 80 dead.  It’s been repaired since and I’m sure the Nélio Corrêa is safer in spite of its overload.
Surprise this morning: no food will be served on the ship.  Frugal breakfast of one tangerine, and one apple with peanut butter.  Later on, when the bar opens, we buy some juice and a packet of chocolate wafers.  This will be a long day.

The Amazon spreads in its full width here and we occasionally see the contrasted color of other tributaries throwing themselves in the big river but keeping their specific shade of black for the Río Negro or reddish brown, a clean line separating their waters that refuse to blend.


Meeting of the waters

Stopover in Juruti.  On the pier, a self-proclaimed comedian throws himself into a loud monologue.  He must be good, since some of the passengers, men mostly, seem to find him irresistibly funny.  For a while, I thought there was a fight going on.
We are not expecting to arrive Santarem until 00:30 and are allowed, therefore, to pass one more night aboard.

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La rencontre de deux géants

Lundi 8 août
Arrivée à Manaus
Il est 07h. Nous sommes à 180 km en amont de Manaus que nous devrions atteindre vers 14h.
Je suis seul à prendre mon petit déjeuner sur le pont supérieur. Chose exceptionnelle, la sono ne diffuse pas de la samba “à plein tube” mais des slows américains langoureux. La mer est un miroir que le soleil levant fait briller, la température est idyllique et la végétation toujours aussi belle.sunise
Nous venons de croiser un tout petit bateau de 8m de long, très haut sur l’eau  car, malgré sa petite taille, il possède un immense pont supérieur. C’est un modèle réduit du nôtre. Comme tous les bateaux sur l’Amazone, il très haut sur l’eau et chargé, à ras bord, de bananes. L’expression est bien choisie car il ne sort de l’eau que de quelques centimètres. Un coup de vent, une vague un peu haute et, plouf … le petit bateau se retourne.
Seules la rareté des tempêtes et la quasi-permanence, toute l’année, d’une mer d’huile sur les fleuves amazoniens permettent de faire naviguer des bateaux aussi hauts et aussi courts. En Europe, ils seraient tous interdits de navigation car ils chavireraient au premier coup de vent.
Vers midi, apparaissent à la surface de l’eau de très nombreux déchets végétaux flottants: des petits arbres, des îlots de nénuphars.  Cela indique que nous approchons de Manaus, l’endroit où le puissant Rio Negro, venant des terres noires du Nord-Ouest, se jette dans le Río Solimões, sur lequel nous naviguons depuis Tabatinga. Après cette rencontre, le Rio Solimões s’appellera (jusqu’à l’océan Atlantique) l’Amazone.
La rencontre de ces deux géants produit un phénomène rare. Les eaux noires du Rio Negro et les eaux marron clair du Rio Solimões coulent, côte à côte, sans se mélanger pendant plusieurs kilomètres. Les différences de vitesse et de température des deux fleuves en sont la cause.manaus-rio-negro-meeting-amazonas
Sept jours passés sur deux cargos m’ont amariné et retiré mon étiquette de touriste. Comme les Brésiliens, j’accroche vite et sans faute mon hamac, je lave et étends mon linge, remplis ma gourde au robinet d’eau fraîche, m’allonge en travers dans mon hamac (et non dans le sens de la longueur), sirote du café très sucré, joue aux dominos ou aux cartes le soir, retire mes chaussures dès que possible, regarde les J.O à la télé….
Nous arrivons à Manaus à 14h.
Manaus a toujours été, pour moi, une ville de légende, un mythe associé, comme l’Amazone, comme le Far West … à l’aventure
C’est maintenant une métropole de plus de deux millions d’habitants, avec son trafic infernal, ses centres commerciaux, ses gratte-ciels…manaus-008
La ville a connu son âge d’or au milieu du XIXème siècle avec la culture du caoutchouc puis son statut a décliné, au début du XXème, avec l’arrivée des matière synthétiques.
Aujourd’hui, cette ville est, cependant, un des principaux pôles industriels du Brésil grâce à son statut de zone franche.
Manaus est une ville surprenante, séduisante, fatigante. La chaleur humide y est étouffante. Les gaz d’échappement sont perceptibles.
Nous avons trouvé un super lieu pour y séjourner : une auberge de jeunesse toute neuve, propre, avec du Wifi qui fonctionne, en plein dans le quartier sympa et à 100m du célèbre Teatro Amazonas.
Nos premiers pas nous y conduisent. Construit à l’âge d’or du caoutchouc, à la fin du XIXème siècle, c’est l’édifice le plus surprenant de Manaus. Un Opéra en plein milieu de l’Amazonie, directement inspiré de l’Opéra Garnier à Paris et construit avec des matériaux importés d’Europe. A l’extérieur, le dôme est recouvert de tuiles aux couleurs du drapeau brésilien. unnamedA l’intérieur, la salle de spectacle peut accueillir 700 personnes. Quelques tapisseries ornées de jaguars rappellent qu’on est en Amazonie. On aurait bien voulu assister à une représentation, mais malheureusement il n’y en avait aucune au programme pendant notre court passage (nous repartons vers Santarem dans 48h).
Demain matin, il y a une visite guidée. Nous y serons.


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In Search of the Elusive Victoria Regia

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.


The Victoria Regia pond as we didn’t see it – Parque Santander – Leticia

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.reserva-natural-marasha
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.coffin

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.enfant

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.

August 6th
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.esfron

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.

7 August
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.image1-3

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.


Filed under On the Amazon - Between Peru and Brazil

Les petits pépins continuent … mais la vie est belle

Mardi 2 août.

Pour rattraper le retard pris, il y a trois jours, sur la bétaillère flottante du nom d’Eduardo X, nous avons décidé de faire en vedette rapide le second tronçon (entre Iquitos et la triple frontière Pérou/Colombie/Brésil) de notre périple qui en compte sept.
L’idée est de faire, aujourd’hui, 330 km sur l’eau jusqu’au dernier port péruvien (Santa Rosa), d’y arriver avant que la douane ne ferme pour y faire les formalités de sortie du Pérou, puis de traverser le fleuve pour passer en  Colombie et dormir dans la petite ville de Leticia, qu’on imagine plus sympa.

Cela commence “normalement”, c’est à dire avec 45 minutes de retard. A 06h45, notre lancha appareille donc du ponton 3 de Puerto Napo, le port civil d’Iquitos. Aucune explication ne nous ayant été donnée, je pense que nous avons attendu les trois retardataires (qui ont raté le bateau).

Heureusement, nous n’avons pas suivi les recommandations de l’agence Trans Turismo Amazonas Express qui insistait pour que nous embarquions à 05h…
Nous retrouvons les deux jeunes Françaises qui, depuis Yurimaguas, me présentent comme leur père pour ne pas être importunées par les jeunes Péruviens entreprenants.
La vedette est une embarcation basse sur l’eau, très fine 2,8m) et très longue (33m) , avec deux lignes d’arbres (ce détail aura plus tard de l’importance) pouvant emporter 50 passagers à la vitesse de 20 noeuds. Les gilets de sauvetage ressemblant furieusement à ceux de la Marine Nationale française des années 70, j’en déduis que notre “lancha” doit avoir une quarantaine d’années; la propreté des toilettes indiquerait plutôt une bonne soixantaine…

Les passagers sont pour moitié des Péruviens, pour moitié des touristes avec leurs sacs à dos (des “backpackers” français et anglais, entre 20 et 40 ans… presque comme moi!).
Au bout de deux minutes, nous arrivons sur un lac qui n’en est pas un, mais est tout simplement la jonction avec le Río Napo et le début de l’Amazone.
Ce grand fleuve a, en effet  la particularité de changer plusieurs fois de nom et de ne pas avoir de source officiellement reconnue.
Si l’on considère que l’Amazone prend sa source dans les monts Mismi (dans les Andes au Sud Est de Lima), ce fleuve est alors le plus long au monde et, de très loin, le plus puissant.

La mer est Río Napo comme un miroir et le commandant à adopté une vitesse confortable (que j’estime à 18 noeuds soit 32km/h). Quand on met, comme moi, des boules Quies (de 3ème génération, svp) dans les oreilles, le voyage ressemble à un trajet en RER ou à la traversée Le Conquet-Ouessant par mer zéro, pour ceux qui connaissent. Sauf que le voyage est prévu durer environ 10 heures …

Par la suite, mon voisin péruvien m’apprend que le petit déjeuner, initialement prévu à 07h30, sera servi à 12h et s’appellera “déjeuner”. En fait, c’était une blague… Pour se faire pardonner, il me donne sa ration de bouillie lactée qu’il trouve infecte. Pour lui montrer qu’un Français n’a peur de rien, je l’accepte et l’avale devant lui. Je trouve même cela bon, mais tout le monde sait que je ne suis pas un critique gastronomique.
En revanche, je suis le seul passager assis sur un fauteuil dont le dossier n’est plus réglable. C’est bien mon jour de chance. C’est décidé, ce soir, en Colombie, si nous y arrivons… je vais aller jouer à la loteria colombiana.

Le spectacle n’est pas du tout monotone. La couleur de l’eau est d’un brun délicat virant au chocolat au lait et contraste bien avec le vert intense de la végétation sur les rives. Entre les deux, il y a en permanence ces bordures de rivière, inclinées à 45 degrés, hautes de 5 mètres et uniquement faites de boues (il n’y a pas un seul rocher).
Les arbres sont des palmiers, des cocotiers et surtout des papayers. Les berges étant en permanence rongées par le courant, très nombreux sont les arbres déjà tombés dans l’eau ou se préparant à tomber. Les troncs d’arbres morts sont donc nombreux sur l’eau et sur les rives.santa-rosa
Nous doublons souvent de toutes petites embarcations à moteur udont l’hélice est à fleur d’eau mais se situe deux mètres sur l’arrière du bateau ( comme au Vietnam). À bord, des pêcheurs ou une famille.
Sur les rives, les habitations sont en toit de palme et souvent regroupées en hameau de 4 ou 5 maisons. Pas d’électricité. C’est toujours très pauvre.
Il n’y a plus de rizières et on ne voit donc plus, sur les berges, les dizaines de hérons blancs que l’on pouvait apercevoir il y a quatre jours. La région étant pauvre, il n’y a aucune marina, aucun bateau de plaisance à voiles ou à moteur. Le fleuve est la principale voie de communication entre les régions pour les populations. Bizarrement, on ne voit aucune péniche  mais beaucoup de barges de transport de liquides inflammables.

08h45… Le bateau s’arrête. Nous venons, semble t il, de nous échouer (pour la troisième fois en trois jours). Le commandant joue avec ses moteurs. Bâbord avant 3 ; tribord arrière 3 ; la barre toute à droite et nous nous déséchouons lentement.
Après quelques hésitations (pour trouver un passage?), nous repartons mais le commandant, bizarrement, le fait à petite vitesse.
Puis, il quitte la rive Est bordée de bancs de sable et semble partir rejoindre et longer la rive Ouest, la plus abrupte, là où la profondeur de l’eau doit être la plus grande.
Erreur de ma part… Le commandant, tout simplement, accoste sur la berge. Nous ne nous sommes pas échoués mais avons un problème mécanique. Un matelot s’enfonce jusqu à mi cuisse dans la boue liquide pour arrimer le bateau à un tronc d’arbre ( il n’y a pas d’ancre à bord). Puis, ayant du souci avec une foutue claveta, deux mécaniciens attaquent, à grands coups de marteau, le démontage – semble-t-il – d’une ligne d’arbres. Nous avons – disent ils – un problème de fixation d’une hélice sur sa ligne d’arbres ( une goupille/clavette a dû sauter où se casser).


Nous repartons une demi-heure plus tard.
La vitesse semble être redevenue normale (18 noeuds environ) mais nous nous dirigeons une seconde fois vers la berge, sur le hameau d’Oran, pour réparer à nouveau. Le problème d’hélice sur la ligne d’arbres tribord est revenu. Pendant deux heures, par un mètre de fond, et dans de l’eau sale et boueuse, remplie de détritus (l’Amazone, dans cette région, est un véritable bouillon de culture où flottent des paquets de mousses sales) un vieux mécanicien va plonger (sans masque ..), boire plusieurs fois la tasse et repositionner la clavette de l’hélice. Un autre, dans l’eau jusqu’à la ceinture et aidé par des enfants qui sont dans les immondices flottants, tape comme un sourd sur un madrier avec une grosse masse. Il essaye de soulever l’arrière du bateau. A 11h30, nous repartons …. pour mieux revenir à Oran. La réparation n’a pas tenu. Une visite du hameau s’impose. Il y a quatre petites boutiques ou tout est vendu à la pièce : un clou, une vis, un pigment, une tablette de médicaments ( ils sont tous périmés de 2 ou 3 ans…). A 12h45, c’est gagné, nous repartons pour la troisième fois. Avec 4 heures de retard…oran

Magasin général – Oran
Vers 13h, le repas pour le huitième fois consécutive : un plat de riz, une demi patate, un pilon de poulet) est servi dans des barquettes douteuses. A ce moment et en moins de cinq minutes, le ciel se noircit et devient un ciel d’encre. Un énorme grain nous tombe dessus ; la visibilité tombe à 50 mètres. La mer se creuse rapidement. J’éclate de rire en voyant le barreur actionner son essuie-glace en tirant à la main sur une cordelette…un coup, deux coups…. Pendant trois longues minutes, le bateau navigue à forte vitesse dans une mer bien creusée (1,5 m). Ce n’est pas malin car cela fatigue énormément la structure du vieux bateau qui n’en a pas besoin. Le bateau, maintenant, saute en l’air et retombe violemment au lieu de glisser sur l’eau. On entend des cris  : un marin continue de servir des verres de coca qui finissent au plafond.
Et, ce qui devait arriver arriva : une vague fait rentrer un bon 200 litres d’eau par la porte avant, non étanche. Nos pieds et nos sacs à dos baignent maintenant dans l’eau. Le commandant stoppe presque. A ce moment précis, l’ambiance à bord a changé car tous les locaux ont enfilé leur brassière. Moi j’essaye de ne pas avoir les pieds mouillés et de ne pas être trempé par l’eau qui coule du sac à dos que je viens de suspendre devant mes genoux. Nous continuons à avancer mais à faible vitesse. L’unique aussière accrochée plage avant n’a pas été arrimée correctement par l’équipage ; elle est maintenant dans l’eau et longe le bateau en sautant  et en fouettant le bord. Aurait-elle été 10 m plus longue, elle passait dans une des deux hélices…
Je comprends mieux maintenant l’expression “marins d’eau douce”. Au bout d’un quart d’heure, le grain est passé. La mer s’est assagie. La visibilité est revenue. Nous re-naviguons à forte vitesse sur une mer plate. Les matelots nettoient les dégâts et épongent le sol.
Ils nous informent que nous devrions arriver A Santa Rosa vers 22h30 lieu de 16h30, horaire annoncé par l’agence de tourisme.. La douane étant probablement fermée, notre sortie du Pérou sera impossible ; nous dormirons donc à Santa Rosa.
A 17h30, il fait nuit noire.
La voute céleste de l’hémisphère sud est splendide mais ne m’est pas familière car il n’y pas l’étoile polaire.
Sur tribord, pendant une heure, un orage crée un magnifique spectacle pyrotechnique en éclairant le dos de gros nuages, hauts dans le ciel (des cumulus, probablement). Pour rattraper le retard, notre bateau file maintenant, tous feux éteints (?) à pleine vitesse dansla nuit noire.

Nous n’avons aucun feu de navigation ( “naviguer sans être vu” semble être un mode de navigation local très couru)… Intérieurement, pas de lumière ; nous sommes dans le noir le plus complet et on continue à foncer sur l’eau : on se croirait sur un bateau rapide des forces spéciales. Le barreur ne voit rien. Il n’a aucun repère sur les rives et, bien sûr, pas de radar, de carte, ni de compas/boussole. Pour éviter les arbres qui flottent, le timonier donne, chaque minute, un petit coup de projecteur devant l’étrave. Quand il y un risque, le barreur diminue l’allure, passe entre les arbres flottants et repart à pleine vitesse.
A 20h, le commandant rallume bizarrement ses feux de navigation. Je comprends. Nous nous préparons à faire une courte halte à San Pablo de Loreto (pour débarquer deux passagers) et, là, il y a une police fluviale. Un  de ses inspecteurs passe même à bord inspecter les bagages.
Nous repartons et accostons sur une rive boueuse à 00h30 à Santa Rosa. Le voyage “rapide”aura duré 18 heures au lieu des 9 annoncées.
La décision est prise de traverser le fleuve et de se rendre à Leticia pour dormir. Nous trouvons un passeur qui double le prix normal et nous dépose à Leticia, à nouveau sur un tas d’immondices.
On marche debout en silence et épuisés, on ne regarde plus où nous marchons jusqu à réveiller un conducteur de tuk-tuk  qui nous dépose dans un hôotel à 02h du matin.
Nous repartirons demain au Pérou faire les formalités de sortie du pays.
Quelle aventure…


Filed under On the Amazon - Between Peru and Brazil, Uncategorized