There I was, finally inside the lungs of the earth, entering the delta of greatest river in the world for its capacity, sailing against the current, across the magnificent Amazon forest.
On August 5th, Jan and I finally woke up feeling healthy and in Belem (which in Portuguese means Bethlehem!), the city which had been my ultimate destination during my northward travels in Brazil. It had been a tough journey marked by a mosquito infested (but free and comfortable) night in a hospital. With dinner and breakfast included, the Brazilian national health system treated us well, avoiding too many noisy questions and useless computer typing which was a nice surprise. A lovely doctor got us drugged up and pressured for some sodium chlorite straight into our veins. The next morning, he personally dropped us back at the bus stop to which we had -in great struggle and pain- hitchhiked the day before. He left us with the sincere advice to take a bus and not to feel safe in the border area of Boa Vista do Gurupi.
At the beginning of the Belem modern market, at the Galpon 9 which unlike Galpon 1, 2 and 3 has not yet been upgraded from warehouse to tourist shopping centre, we found a nice old man who sold us the boat ticket to Santarem, for 150R (equivalent to about 25 euros), leaving in 5 hours from that time, at 4PM. I had been planning on spending about a week in the city to be sure of taking all the needed precautions before adventuring into the infinite jungle (yellow fever vaccine for Jan, all kinds of repellents and sun protections, hammocks and ropes, pans and spices, night torch, false documentation to explain my visa overstay, etc…) But in fact, we were both very excited to get going on the boat, and the expensive hostel we found outside the centre of the city made it an easy choice to get going. We ran around the market area, which extends outside the seafront traditional Mercado Ver-o-peso (see the weight) into the surrounding streets, selling all kind of electronics, traditional food, new and second hand clothes, hammocks, and lots of plastic uselessness. It was tough hopping through the leaves, roots, nuts, fruits and veggies stands under such pressure, making sure to not get robbed while storing up with lots of munchies such as Parà nuts (the Brazilian Brazil nuts!), mandioca biscuits and Brazilian version of taralli (I was an explosion of happiness when I discovered this). Our main worry was finding the right hammock for Jan’s accommodation across the continent. Thanks to the over availability of all of the above-mentioned goods, the excellent selling skills of Brazilians and my efficiency and rudeness towards Jan’s holiday vibes, we made all our purchases even had time for my most awaited lunch in Brazil.
I sat by the river in the heart of the old market and ordered a traditional Paraense PF. The regional Prato Feito– made plate- contained, along with the usual rice, pasta and beans, fish was served with a bowl of pure, cold açaí… I eat my amazing lunch in absolute delight dipping the fish into the Brazilian berry juice, happy to confirm the many myths I had been told by those who had travelled through the region to experience its gastronomical peculiarities.
We arrived at a rundown harbour somewhere in the ghetto right on time, only to discover we were five hours early for the departure of the boat. With the start of the Olympics, everyone was running around town making sure they are watching the games with enough beer and friends, the captain of the San Marino II wanted to be sure the passengers could arrive early to hang their hammock before they could be stuck in traffic.
I met Newton and Lia, with which I’d been crossing roads continuously for the last 3 months. We contributed to the forming a little gringo corner where we speak any language and look after each other’s valuables. From who, one might think? Well for the starters from any of the dodgy men lurking around the boat drinking Campari all day, from our little routine visitors that started pirating our boat as we left Marajò island this morning, and from the ugly old lady who would stare at us and then take a long cruise lurking around our air-camp.
The unique scenery we woke up to at dawn is of the green lush forest hanging over the brown waters and dotted by simple wooden shacks, each with a little dock and canoe, often a porch to hang a hammock or a simple vegetable patch. The vegetation did not meet my expectations of a deep, dark jungle inhabited by all kinds of colorful and deadly wildlife. Instead, it reminded me of the cerrado of Brasilia and Goiais, an alternation of fruit trees and bushes, banana and açaí palms… Just as I was starting to doubt the environmental statistics, landscapes of deforestation and timber industries started appearing as well.
On the water, children in canoes paddled towards us. Some receive plastic bags, presumably full of clothes, from the passengers. The older children take their mini speed boat made of a canoe with a genius motor (that looks like a trimmer) up to the ferry, tie their rope and hop on. My first reaction was to run to protect my belongings, assuming we were about to be attacked by baby pirates. But the young locals came to offer salt-processed shrimps, açaí and palm sticks at bargain prices. Throughout the morning, they came and went on their fast vessels, each time extinguishing their stock, often taking time to run around the boat in search of any other opportunity. Little Paola found the group of gringos drinking mate and eating papaya seeds particularly interesting and allowed herself a few minutes to stare at us in wonder…