Monday, January 31, 2011
The ride of a lifetime down the Amazon
We had been directed to an area off to one side of the dock and as midnight approached we watched trucks drive containers onto the barge and line them up in perfect order. After the first barge was filled, it was moved out of the way to make room for a second one. Finally at around 2:30 am, there was a knock on the door. Time to move. As we approached the barge we could see it was full and we were on the back with plenty of room to get around the RV and open our doors. We park and Tom gets out. As we watch, our barge is moved forward and the first barge is tied to the back of ours with cables, which put us in the middle of the two barges. Right on schedule, we leave Manaus behind as the full moon leaves reflections on the water and we edge into the channel towards the Amazon. The Amazon River. So symbolic with Brazil, it starts in the Peruvian Andes just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean and travels over 4,000 miles before it flows out into the Atlantic close to the equator. It has about 15,000 tributaries; some like the Madeira, Solimoes and the Negro are huge rivers themselves. The Amazon having the heaviest flow of any other river in the world, deposits into the ocean about one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. This water flows with such force that it is still fresh 110 miles out in the ocean. And one 1,000 mile stretch of this amazing waterway will be our home for the four days that it takes to get to Belem. After a brief night’s sleep, we get up to examine our new surroundings. Winston is definitely not sure about this new turn of events and is sniffing around the barge but alarmed when he realizes we are surrounded by water. There are a group of truck drivers who have set up camp just a short distance from us, so we walk over and introduce ourselves. They only speak Portuguese and we don’t but somehow we exchange names and find out via hand signals and maps where they are from and what we are up to. Like everyone, they are amazed and over the next few days offer plenty of information about our route through Brazil and places not to miss. We are moving down the river at about 11 miles an hour and on both sides we see dense jungle. I remember reading about Brazil being a country that fugitives come to, to hide out and I am not surprised. This is a huge country and a person could “disappear” here for a very long time. Late morning, a crew member comes up to us. Apparently lunch and dinner are provided and he tells us, lunch is at 11:30 and dinner at 5. We have also gone through another time change and are now 5 hours ahead of our family in California. After our first lunch of chicken, grilled beef, beans, rice and noodles, we notice the clouds forming. It was to be the first of many deluges in the days ahead. The rain came down in torrents but brought a welcoming breeze that cooled us off. Later after dinner, Tom and I gathered our stuff and made our way back to the tug, which actually pushes the barges through the water from the back, showered and watched the sun set on this amazing first day. The next couple of days passed in much the same way, chatting with the drivers and boat crew, swinging in hammocks, reading, doing small chores around the motor home, playing with Winston who by now knows his way around and is well acquainted with everyone, avoiding the rain during storms and of course eating. We also found out where the left-over food goes. All of our meals have consisted of a combination of at least two of beef, chicken, pork or fish and the ever-present beans, 2 types of rice and noodles and there has been lots of food left. The cook, packages the left-overs into bags with a 2 litre bottle of juice attached (to help it float) and the local inhabitants row over in their canoes and collect it as he throws it into the water. Another somewhat surprising item is that the crew is armed and as darkness falls, at least two roam the boat sporting semi-automatic weapons. It would seem that pirates are not only confined to the Caribbean and Somalia. We are told that occasionally barges have been boarded by banditos and their cargoes hijacked. Late in the evening of the third day, we enter the port of Santarem which is at the convergence of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers. This old colonial fortress is now home to about a half million jungle gold prospectors or “garimpeiros’. The only way in and out of Santarem is by boat or air and so they rely heavily on the barges to bring them the commodities they need. Our stop lasted about 3 hours with some containers being unloaded and others loaded but empty, destination Belem for more supplies. Our last day on the barge was also the nicest, weather-wise and we spent the time taking lots of photos and preparing for our emergence back into civilization. Before dinner, I made a plate of hors d’oevres for us and our fellow truckers and we offered them a beer. Tom and I open a bottle of Champagne and toast our last night on the Amazon. We have T-shirts from the San Jose Fire Dept. for our crew and totally unexpected, the Captain gave us a T-Shirt and hat from the Brazilian Merchant Marines. Both of us agree that this has been a remarkable, memorable experience. These four days on the barge have been extraordinary in that time would seem to standstill. Due to the secular nature of the river, the people who live at the water’s edge and call it home have not changed much in years, the jungle still grows up to the riverbanks and the great Amazon still makes its way to the Atlantic. I feel humbled by the vastness and timelessness of it all, awed in the majestic beauty of the area and thankful that I am one of God’s creatures that managed to experience it.