November 8-11, 2006
The journey from Tabatinga to Manaus was a long one, 1200 KM to be exact. For me, it involved riding down the Amazon for four days in a large boat in hammock class. This boat was much more crowded than the one from Iquitos to Santa Rosa. Not only was there very little room on the sides of our hammocks, which often created a human-sized Newton's Cradle when someone got bumped, but in several cases, there wasn't any room left, and people had to start stacking their hammocks on top of each other.
This boat was a lot nicer than the last one I took, though. The top floor had a bar with plenty of cold beer, a television, tables for playing cards, and a large open deck for watching the river. There were rooms with real beds, private bathrooms, air conditioners, and television sets, but I couldn't justify paying the extra price, considering that it would've cost less to fly. There were actual bathrooms with flushing toilets, and they were separated for men and women. I found that out the hard way. The bathrooms were marked "WC ELE" and "WC ELA." WC is a standard symbol for bathroom, but I didn't know what ELE and ELA meant. In fact, I didn't even realize they were different words until I tried walking into the "ELA" bathroom and got yelled at by a woman nearby. I guess they translate to "his" and "hers." That naming convention must confuse many travelers.
The weather was cool and comfortable for most of the trip. We had a couple rainstorms, but water didn't enter the ship this time because the tarps that served as walls were more waterproof on this boat. A few times it got ridiculously hot, but then it was easy to take a long nap in my hammock.
Food was included in the price of admission, but it was bland and repetitive. Every morning we got woken up at 6:00 for breakfast when one of the employees ran past everyone ringing a bell. Breakfast consisted of a bread and cup of sugar with a little bit of coffee, lunch and dinner generally contained chicken, rice, beans, and noodles. Fruits and vegetables were unheard of on board, and I was dreaming of coconuts and watermelons by the second night.
There were a lot of other travelers on the boat besides Craig and myself. Charlie, the Polish-Canadian-American immigrant who was on my last boat, accompanied us this time as well. His constant stories about finding good food, spending as little money as possible, and especially finding good food as cheaply as possible provided us with plentiful comic relief. Also joining us were Aldo, an Italian whose story about losing everything but his life in the Tsunami in Sri Lanka two years ago ranks amongst the greatest survival stories I've ever heard, a couple of Israelis, and an Aussie guy whose arm you'd have to twist to get him to open up about the minutest detail of his travels. We spent a lot of time playing cards, chess, and Scrabble on the board Craig made since last time I saw him. I always thought of Scrabble as a kid's game, but some of the arguments we had about what was and wasn't a word would even make most hardened adults shudder in disbelief.
Along the way, we stopped many times in towns and cities to load and unload cargo and people. The towns seemed to be a lot better off financially than those of Peru. Instead of having to set up the gangplank to walk on and off the ship, there were actual ports to make things easier. More people drove cars and motorcycles, and very few people gathered 'round the ship to watch all of the action. Everything was a lot more organized than in Peru, too. The ship left right on time, instead of paying the captain before getting off, we had to buy official-looking tickets before getting on, and the boat always rang its horn fifteen minutes before leaving a port to warn everybody. There was a walk-in freezer in the cargo hold for transporting chicken, beef, and fish from the size of small piranha to pirarucu, which was longer and heavier than me. The ship also constantly had to be restocked with beer and other food supplies for the passengers.
The first night on the ship, I decided to get away from the hordes of people and sleep on the top deck on my inflatable mattress. About midnight, we got stopped by the drug police. They instantly singled me out and looked at my passport and all of my luggage. When they were finally done, I went back to bed for about an hour when they woke me up again. This time, they were inspecting all passengers' luggage, so they had to look through my backpack again. They were never rude, but the search took hours and kept everybody up half the night. At least they started searching us at midnight rather than making us wait until dawn like the Peruvian police.
For the most part, it was a long, boring trip. The river was so wide, it felt more like traveling across a really long lake. Wildlife was unseen because we were always so far from shore. There were so many young women with babies, often all breastfeeding at once, that it felt like I was in the middle of a nursery rather than on an adventure down the Amazon. At least the locals didn't stare at us as much as in other countries. A lot of them even appeared to be Brazilian tourists because they carried cameras and spent a lot of time with us watching the scenery pass us by. Overall it was a nice trip, although I think a few more days on the ship would've gotten too boring for me. 1200 KM may seem like a long distance, but that's actually only one-fifth the length of the entire river.
The photo album for this entry is here.