Category Archives: Brazil

Rollin´, Rollin´, Rollin on the (Amazon) River

Nick Says: So last time you heard from us, we were just about to set off on our 4 day river-boat up the Amazon, and across to almost the Bolivian border. We were packed and raring to go, but I had forgotten one important thing – things never go to plan when you`re travelling. After heading down to the busy port in Manaus, we asked around for our boat. After several attempts by the sellers to send us to Belem (several hundred kilometres the other direction) we finally got our tickets, only to find out the boat was delayed by a day. Ok, no problem – we just settled in for another night and spent the day at a nature park. Rather fortuitously we met another backpacker there, who came up to us to ask us bus directions. He turned out to be a British guy named Mark (I always need one to travel with) who after turning 50 had decided to jack in his old life in London and go and travel the world. So far he had been in South America for 9 months, visiting almost every country bar Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Amazingly, he also turned out to be getting the exact same boat as us, which was really unusual as we were doing the non-backpacker route and fully expected to be the only westerners aboard. He was a very chilled out guy and easy to get along with, and being older it meant we all got treated with a bit more respect by the locals. Several times he was asked if he was our Dad! Although most of the time people thought he was Brazilian as he was super tanned. A proper ex-pat look going on!

So with our new travel buddy we arranged to meet the next morning at the dock. We waved goodbye to our hostel friends, and set off on one of the sweatiest walks of our lives. Manaus has been described as a pressure cooker, and with our bags on our backs we certainly felt the heat. By the time we finally reached the port we´d probably lost about 1 stone in weight. The only trouble was, we´d gone to the wrong port – our boat was sailing from one 10 mins walk away. So we set off again, sweating all the way there. We found our ticket seller, who put us on the phone to the captain of the boat, who spoke a very poshly accented English and apologised for the delay. He said the boat was just about to arrive and we could put our bags on and string our hammocks up ready for a 6pm departure. However, once down at the docks there was no sign of the Dois Irmaos (our boat to be) and instead a sailor miming that it was still on the river. We were hot, and had no idea what to do next. Setting our bags down, Bee decided to go back up to the agent and get hold of the captain. I would wait by the bags surrounded by sweaty sailors. Ages seemed to go past before Bee returned – and I must admit I was starting to get a bit worried! But she came back with news – the boat had broken down, missed its slot at the dock and wouldn´t be setting off until the next day at the earliest. Declining an invitation to spend the night on a different boat at the dock, we returned defeated to the hostel. Our reward for another night in Manaus? Going to the main plaza in the evening and getting to listen to what was claimed as a Beatles tribute band, but actually only played Paul McCartney compositions – including a mighty rendition of Live and Let Die.

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The next day broke with a promise of Amazonian adventure. We met back up with Mark, arranged a new meeting time, and told ourselves we would leave today. Another sweaty walk to the docks, but this time when we arrived about a hundred agents and dock workers rushed to greet Bee and shake her hand, and exclaim loudly at her in Portuguese. It turned out she had made a lot of friends in her stubborn quest to find out what had happened to the boat the day before. So if you ever need to sort out a boat from Manaus in the future, take Bee Barker with you. This time luck was with us, the boat was there! We boarded, put our hammocks up and waited to set sail. A mere two days behind schedule it did, and the three of us cracked open a beer on the top deck as we cruised down the Rio Amazonas and watched Manaus disappear into the distance.

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Bee Says: I had no idea what to expect from 4 days on a boat on the Amazon, but the most important thing was that I was armed with a leopard print hammock so was by far the snazziest on board! We were lucky enough to bag a spot on the second deck (of three) as the bottom deck had the scorchingly hot and noisy engine, and the top deck had a soundsystem playing Brazilian pop all hours of the day. As we left in the dark there wasn´t too much to see but we could just make out the moment we crossed the “meeting of the waters” where the white Rio Solimoes meets the Rio Negro, google images here! Lots of the artwork and tiling of the pavements in Manaus, and wider Brazil, is inspired by black and white waves because of this. We strung our hammocks up, with me in between Mark and Nick. The swaying of the boat kept knocking our hammocks into each other like those executive desk toys from the nineties. But soon the waves lulled us to sleep and we woke excited for our first day on deck. Every day basically followed the same routine: Wake up at sunrise (5am) to eat cream crackers & drink piping hot coffee for breakfast. Head to the top deck before the sun gets too hot, to wildlife spot. Ive never seen so many amazing creatures! We saw the famed pink river dolphins (as magical as they sound!) that played and splashed “escorting” our boat along the whole 4 days, giant otter (again, as if regular otters aren´t cute enough?), monkey fish that hurtle up to a metre in the air from the water to gobble insects, fireflies that glowed orange, yellow and green, toucans and parrots in every colour possible. Ocassionally I´d see a few red leaves on an otherwise green tree and think back to how autumn must be setting in back home… then the “leaves” would suddenly fly away, and I´d realise they were red ibis birds.

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Lunch was always chicken, rice, beans, salad and noodles. Post-lunch was siesta time for everyone, as the stifling tropical heat made it impossible to do anything else. By 3pm it was back up top for more gazing around, watching the little communities on the riverbanks as they use the Amazon for everything – food, washing, working and travelling. Dinner was… IDENTICAL to lunch but with beef! We had read a top tip before taking this trip which was to buy pimiento hot sauce, firstly to flavour the food and secondly to befriend your neighbours… and this definitely came in very handy. After dinner we were treated every night to the most dramatic, incredible thunder and lightning storms that lasted hours. Luckily… no rain accompanied them, so we could huddle on the deck and watch lightening forks set the sky ablaze and thunder rattle through our bones. Words can´t really do justice to those nights, they were a pinch-yourself  memory I’ll always treasure.

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Even the toilets and showers weren’t that bad. The best shower by far was the ladies on bottom deck, which had a hole for a window at the exact right eye level so I could watch the Amazon float past as I washed my hair! You had to share your shower with a few spiders too, but they kept to themseves mostly. The toilets were similar to what you would expect from a music fetival after a similar amount of days/quantity of people using it. All in all the Amazon was a perfect serene experience and one I would recommend to everyone! Compared to official organised tours over here which can cost a fortune, this is public transport so we paid a tiny amount for such an incredible experience. The only bad side, which  am loath to mention but I have to be honest, was there were a few young lads our age on board. One morning, a guy sidled up to me and asked me to take a shower (and you can imagine what else) with his friend. I was so gobsmacked that I could barely respond other than saying NO loudly and many times. It really rattled me, as up until this point I have barely had a sleazy second glance and mostly men have been overly chivalrous towards me everywhere we have been. Also it was so obvious Nick and I were together, so he had some nerve waiting until I was on my own to ask. The experience did upset me, as the boys would keep staring at me (although to be fair the views are boring to them, as they’ve lived there forever!) but I didn’t feel threatened – just irritated as you cant really escape anyone on a small boat! I was extra careful after this though for peace of mind, Nick accompanied me everytime I went to the showers and toilets, waiting outside like a bodyguard. I felt like Cheryl Cole! But being with Nick and Mark I never felt worried about it and it was easy to forget about them. I only mention it because up until this point there isn’t a single thing we’ve done that I think would be unsafe for a woman travelling alone – however with the Amazon I would recommend (if you dont speak Portuguese) going with at least another person, or a group. This also makes sense from a security perspective, as it means you can always have one person bag-watching.

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Nick Says: Apart from the sleazy boys, who left us well alone after a chat (which weirdly involved Disney and barbequeing a bear, so maybe not the intimidating talk I wanted), everyone else on the boat was great company. Little communities soon formed between everyone, and your neighbours soon became friends. Despite our obvious lack of Portuguese language skills, it didn’t stop anybody from chatting to us constantly. The were several memorable people on the boat. First was Boss-Lady, who made the meals, served them to us (we were always last!) and basically ran the domestic side of the ship. There was no way you’d mess with her, even if she alternated between wearing beautiful dresses and Justin Bieber vests. Every morning she would wake us up for breakfast, a gentle nudge for Bee, a stinging slap on my feet for me. Smiles for Bee, scowls for me. However, she took a real shine to Mark, giving him extra coffee when she wasn’t supposed too! The charming devil. Next came the Argentine bikers, two middle-aged guys who had rented the cabin at the front. They were divorced three times each, and were motorbiking around South America on giant BMW bikes similar to those used in Long Way Round/Down, and which were stored in the hold. They didn’t have any maps though, so often borrowed my guidebook to plan their route! We were able to talk to them a bit more in Spanish, although Argentine Spanish is quite different apparently. Then there was distinguished chap. He had a neat little beard and always looked immaculate, no matter the hour. He also seemed quite stern at first. However, 4 days on a river-boat worked their magic on him and by the last day he was bare-chested, swigging beer at 8am in the morning, and beardless. He was also constantly chatting to us, and offering us things, pointing out animals on the bank, and generally saluting everyone. Finally there was crazy old guy who of course was in the hammock next to me. He became obsessed with Bee’s mosquito net (put up as a territory defender, as there was a real lack of mozzies) and convinced it would fly away, so was constantly instructing me to wrap it up. Or just pointing at it. Or stroking it. He also liked to shout at me in Portuguese while standing very close to me and occasionally slap my bum.

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Bee Says: We made a stop en route to drop off some frozen fish from the cargo, which was THE entertainment of the trip. Our boat neighbours, who hadnt seemed fussed by majestic river dolphins, swarmed on deck watching for an hour as the various huge fish were unpacked, weighed and rejected or accepted. There were so many types, zebra stripes and one that looked like a mini Moby Dick.

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Next it was straight on to Porto Velho where we arrived at an eye watering 4am. We could sit about onboard until 6am, when we had ONE mission. Get to Bolivia… in a DAY! We did this by getting straight on a bus, a melty 5 hours to Guajara Mirim (the Brazilian border town) with no air con. There was time for a quick look around this quaint little place and to get our exit stamp for Brazil (after our Venezuela mishap we were determined to get it right this time). Then it was on to a passenger launch which crossed over the River Mamore as the sun set, and in five minutes we were in Guayaramerín… HOLA BOLIVIA!

 

Are there brazil nuts in Brazil?

Bee Says: Venezuela > Brazil was to be our first of many border crossings, and the first I’ve ever done on land. Border crossings have a reputation for being tricky, so it was with slight trepidation that I packed my backpack up and headed to a Por Puesta taxi that would take us from Santa Elena across the border and on to Boa Vista, Brazil. The taxis wait for a group of 5 before setting off, so being typically British we rocked up at 8am raring to get going. At 9.30am we finally rolled out of town, complete with a boot full of frozen meat that our driver stopped to pick up en route! We had barely left Santa Elena before our taxi was pulled over by a heavily armed policeman who leant his massive gun and pointy finger into the passenger window and shouted (in Spanish) GERMAN? GERMAN? at us. My sweaty brow creased at his angry red face but between the driver and my limited vocab we realised he wanted to see our passports and then wanted to know what country we were from. His guesses went from German to North American, before he understood we were British. He then went very quiet. TOO quiet. He studied our passports for a painfully long time… before reaching his hand out with a huge grin and saying in perfect English, “Nice to meet you.” It turns out he just wanted to shake hands with a rare Brit couple and show off his language skills! I was so relieved I waved to him until he was a tiny ant-man in the distance and we had no more drama until the border crossing. The taxi driver isn’t used to taking foreigners (who have a different crossing process to locals) so forgot to stop us for a Venezuelan exit stamp. As we declared ourselves at the Brazilian border, the policia informed us that without an exit stamp we won’t be able to go back to Venezuela using these passports. Luckily our itinerary doesn’t take us back there… but still, we felt like we’d done something wrong and shuffled around sheepishly as we were reprimanded. Everything seemed to take excruciatingly long and even though I knew we were going to be fine, every question made me feel guilty and uncertain and I was very relieved when we finally got the holy second-country stamp and were off to Brazil! Not so fast… we were singing along to Brazilian radio for about five minutes before we were pulled over by armed police again, with the same cross faces and pointy fingers (and guns, I can’t get used to the weapons), and had our bags searched. Thankfully all they seemed to take a close look at was Nick’s dirty underwear (!) and finally we were on our way, hurtling along the baking hot road to Boa Vista where the road is so scorching that an optical illusion makes it look permanently wet. I felt the closest I’ll probably get to a mirage in the jungle, surrounded by palm trees and arid terrain. By this stage our bumbling border experience had captured the heart of a young Brazilian woman, Joelma, sat up front. I chatted to her in Spanish and we realised that she was also heading directly to Manaus from Boa Vista, and so would be a useful aid in navigating buses etc. She grabbed Nick’s Lonely Planet, found the Portuguese dictionary section and spent the next two hours underlining what she felt were the most important phrases in biro – mostly revolving around food and personal safety!

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We stopped for comida in a small road side settlement but at this stage neither of us had any Brazilian currency so we skulked around awkwardly eating the remains of some crisps from Nick’s bag. It must have been nearly 40 degrees in the sun, and we were wilting at the thought of another hours driving when Joelma came over with two frosty Coca-colas for us. it was so generous and just what we needed at that moment. A new friend and a refreshing drink! She also introduced us to her favourite Brazilian food – salgado. A fried ball of chicken, olives & veg that she proceeded to eat covering EVERY mouthful in pimenta (hot sauce). My jaw dropped. This is how I eat my food at home – smothered in so much hot sauce that you can barely recognise the dish below. I suddenly knew that Brazil would have a very special place in my heart (and tummy)!

Nick Says: The road (the only road) continued south into Brazil for hundreds of miles, past palm trees and scrubland until finally we reached the outskirts of the first major city in the north of Brazil – Boa Vista. However, while it seemed the journey was almost done, it was about to take a darker turn. Waiting in traffic, a guy was gesturing at the car. Getting out, we noticed that something on the bottom of the car had come loose and was dragging along the ground. I’m in no way mechanical, but it seemed like something we needed. A random piece of rope was procured, and the bit of metal was re-attached. We set off again, but only for a few hundred metres. Joelma turned round and said, ‘accident’. It was a bad one. Two guys had come off a bike and were now lying prone on the road. No helmets, and from the angle of their bodies, as well as some more grisly details, I could tell they would not be walking away from the crash. A crowd had gathered, and attempts were made to cover them with cardboard. I felt sick as we passed by. I never knew these two Brazilian men, and they never knew me, but I was now intrinsically linked to their deaths, and the final actions will affect me for the rest of this trip. It was only after we passed that Bee mentioned we may have been caught up in the crash if it wasn’t for our car breaking. Strange to think of that.

We soon rolled into Boa Vista station, where we jumped out a little shell-shocked. But there was no time to reflect as our bossy Brazilian friend marched us to the cash-point (which thankfully worked) and then led us into the ticket office. Through a combo of Bee’s Spanish and Joelma’s Portuguese the two were somehow able to forge a quick friendship – one I was shoved to the side of uncermoniously. Joelma would take Bee out to the station to parade her round and role-play Portuguese phrases in shops, before re-appearing with some sort of treat for us, including ice-cream which she managed to drop all over the floor (funny in any language) and bars of chocolate. She made sure we got the same bus as her (and in adjacent seats) and then it was off on another night-bus to Manaus.

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Ah Manaus, the city in the middle of the Amazon. Built up in the late 19th Century by rubber barons, it is the major port of the Amazon and a mish-mash of colonial buildings, brand new developments, and favelas. It’s a fascinating place, and by all accounts one of the safest and friendliest in Brazil. It will also play host to several World Cup games next year, and we drove past the stadium on our way in. Considering it’s meant to be staging games in matter of months, I’d say it’s got a fair way to go until it’s ready… We had a few days before the boat sailed, so it was time to enjoy hostel life and see some sights – first of which was the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house built in 1896 in the middle of what was then pretty much jungle. Taking a tour to this amazing building was brilliant, as it’s been fully restored and retains much of its original features. However, my lasting memory of the place won’t be the ballroom or auditorium, it will be the fact the building attacked me. Waiting outside and putting on sun-cream, a storm suddenly rolled in. With it came a powerful gusting wind, which slammed against the building and shattered the plate glass windows. One came crashing down next to me not more than 50cm from my head. Leaping back I marvelled at how close it had been. What I should have done is sprinted away as quickly and as far as possible like Bee. As seconds later another gust of wind blew out another window, causing a shard of glass to deeply slice my back up. OUCH. Luckily we had some tape int he medical pack meaning I avoided stitches, and could stick the wound together until it healed – not easy in the humidity! I’ll add it to my long list of injuries sustained on the road, which will be the subject of a future blog post!

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Bee Says: Ah the life of a hostel hopping backpacker. After spending the last week or so on our own, rattling round hostels with no fellow backpackers, it was a shock to the system to arrive at Hostel Manaus and find there were no private rooms available. We sloped up bleary eyed to a dorm, where we crashed out on our bunks. Being in a dorm actually worked out well, as we instantly befriended our roomies and I remembered this is what I love about hostel life. It is like a current in the ocean, you can just float along with the flow and you know there’ll always be a gang of people doing something you can go tag along to. This happened instantly for us, as a guy from Rio tipped us off about a concert taking place that night at the Teatre Amazones… so a few hours later we headed out. Myself, 2 Brazilian guys, a Dutch guy and an Italian guy (and Nick)… me and my 5 dates to the opera! We opted for slightly pricier tickets, so had wonderful seats high in the beautiful circle, with a perfect view of the stage. The concert was a traditional classical group from the amazon, who made their instruments from local resources and had tons of amazing percussions bits and bobs – including one that was just a coconut shell floating about in water that got tapped with a stick. I think even I could play that one. The night consisted of classical pieces, a famous local opera singer, a man in a shiny suit who sang Time to Say Goodbye in Portuguese, poetry and everything inbetween. The performance lasted hours and was electric, with the audience roaring and clapping in time and swaying to the beats. A truly pinch-yourself experience to be watching this and knowing you are sat in the middle of the jungle!

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From one type of music to another, we were led by our new tour guides to a streetside bar where we drank litres of beer (it’s so cheap here and so refreshing, as it’s served still partially in chunks of ice), ate fish dumplings and listened to a samba band whip everyone into a frenzy and turning the pavement into a dance floor. We sat for hours soaking up this taste of Brazil and both knew that there was something special in the air that would definitely be hard to beat. Marvellous Manaus has been a wonderful place to spend a few days pre-boat experience. We’ve had the time and freedom to find favourite local places, such as the Budega 101 where you load up your plate from a vast buffet of food choices and then your plate is weighed and charged by the kilo! It was here I discovered banana fritter, a popular sweet treat. We also spent alot of time in Skina dos Suco, a juice bar that looks like something from Grease; with high stools and long tables forcing you to squeeze in with the locals as you slurp the most incredible juices. Nick sampled Acai (palm berries – that look like eyeballs – and tapioca) which tasted horrible but he said has made his insides feel cleansed and happy after a few too many salgados. We also found his dream milkshake – Ovaltine biscuits and Ovaltine ice cream. I know my mum will understand just how happy this would make him!

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We have lurked around the port, checked out the markets and today we went to the Bosque de Ciencia (Science Park). A sticky bus journey 30 minutes through more and less desirable sections of Manaus bought us to the 130sq km jungle that houses squirrel monkeys (the most exciting wildlife spot I’ve had so far!), manatee, GIANT otters, crocodiles, sloth and electric eels amongst other beasties.

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Finally, we bought our hammocks (mine is leopard print… obv!) and tomorrow we set sail on our Amazon boat which will take us four days and nights through Brazil to Porto Velho and one step closer to our next stop. Bolivia!

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(PS. I still haven’t received an answer for my number one Brazil question, and the title of this blog post. I haven’t seen any evidence of them around that’s for sure. Socorro?)