Cruising on the Amazon River ‘highway’

  • Europe
  • Friday, 07 Nov 2014

One of the many boats that transport people and goods along the Amazon River.

There’s nothing like being crammed together in a long boat journey to learn more about the local people you’re with.

Standing at the port of Manaus, a city of about 2.5 million, I almost forgot I was right in the heart of the world’s largest rainforest. Situated in the Brazilian rainforest, it is a dense concrete jungle, with congested traffic and the hectic comings and goings of boats and container ships.

I was here to catch a boat to Tabatinga, on Brazil’s border with Colombia.

I found a boat – the Voyager III – that would take me on a seven-day journey upriver. The ticket cost R$300 (RM400) with all meals and drinking water included.

Boats like the Voyager III are very common along the Amazon River; they are the lifeline of the people living in the towns and villages along the river.

These boats typically have three decks. The top level is an open deck with a bar selling drinks and snacks. The bottom deck is for cargo, whilst the middle one is the passenger deck. It’s essentially an empty space sandwiched between the cockpit at the front and the kitchen and toilets at the back.

Adventures on board

On the day of my departure, I arrived at my vessel at the break of dawn, so that I could choose the best spot on deck, just behind the cockpit as it would get crowded in the middle section, and the rear could potentially be rather unpleasant with toilet odours.

There were already a few people on board but I found a cosy spot on the starboard side just behind the cockpit.

As soon as I had finished hanging my hammock between two beams, I noticed a young guy setting up his next to mine. We smiled at each other, and introduced ourselves.

His name was Alejandro, a 26-year-old Argentinian who had set out from his hometown in Rosario about three months earlier. He travelled slowly, stopping in places to sell handmade bracelets to help fund his journey.

Passengers waiting to disembark as the boat readies to dock.
The skyline of Manaus in Brazil, as seen from the Amazon River.

“How long are you travelling for?” I asked, intrigued.

“I have no idea,” he replied nonchalantly. “I have no ultimate destination, and I don’t have a set date for returning home. I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Alejandro continued as we swung leisurely in our hammocks while the boat slowly filled up with more passengers.

It never ceases to amaze me how South Americans can be so at ease with living in the present, while we Asians live in constant worry over the future.

We spoke in Spanish while everyone around us was conversing in Portuguese. I had picked up Spanish when I lived in Spain for three years; it helped me tremendously in my travels in South America.

By midday, the boat was packed. Hammocks were hung haphazardly, creating a kaleidoscope of colours. There were probably over 200 people in a space that was slightly bigger than the size of two typical Malaysian classrooms.

At around 2pm, the Voyager III left the port with a few ear-piercing blasts of its horn. I stood at the starboard and watched the concrete jungle of Manaus slowly give way to wooden houses on stilts. The water level must have been high, as some of the houses were partly submerged.

I noticed that the boats travelling downriver sailed in the middle of the river where the strong current would do half the work. The Voyager III travelled at the side, about 50m from the right-hand bank, allowing me to better observe the jungle.

Alejandro reading Lau’s Lonely Planet guidebook.
The friendly kids on the boat like to play with the writer.

The wooden houses then gave way to lush, green jungle, which was slowly getting thicker. This was the famous exotic Amazon rainforest that I had previously only seen on National Geographic’s documentary and magazine. It was simply amazing to be there in person to see it all.

The greenery was so thick that I couldn’t see beyond the first four rows of trees. I didn’t see any anacondas or other exotic animals, but I spotted some playful monkeys swinging from tree to tree as if racing alongside our boat. Their calls sounded like the excited shrieks of children in a playground.

With Alejandro standing next to me, we admired the verdant scenery in silence. We were in no rush to chat because we knew we had the next seven days to do so.

Life on board was rather boring and we were free to do absolutely nothing, not that we had much choice. The women tended to huddle together in groups, exchanging gossip, doing each other’s nails, whilst the men congregated at the bar on the top deck, leisurely sipping beer, smoking and listening to reggaeton music.

However, the majority of the passengers spent large portions of the day reclining in their hammocks, in a state between sleep and waking.

One day, as I was reading a book in my hammock, Alejandro called out me to go to the port. He sounded very excited. I got up to see what was going on.

Fishing is for sustenance and here the villagers are seen taking off with their catch.
Villagers waiting for their loved ones on board to disembark.

There, right next to the boat, a dolphin was playing in the water, blowing water out of the hole in its back. I was entranced. I must have been watching it for a while before I realised I ought not to miss this brilliant photo opportunity. I quickly went to my backpack, dug out my camera and rushed back. It took no more than 20 seconds. But alas, the dolphin was gone.

I stood there with Alejandro for a good two to three minutes waiting for it to return but it never did. I guess some moments are meant to be experienced in the present and not captured.

One day, bored out of my mind, I decided to do some origami to pass the time. Very quickly, a crowd of children gathered around me, drawn by the sight of colourful paper.

Most of them were too shy to come nearer, except for a friendly 10-year-old, Nazinho, and a playful nine-year-old, Mancley. I handed them each a piece of paper and they followed me step by step in folding the paper.

The boys only spoke Portuguese. Luckily, I had picked up some Portuguese when I started travelling in Brazil, and the language is close enough to Spanish that I could sometimes get by with Spanish. But I would soon learn that language was not essential when communicating with children.

When we had finished, Mancley held up his paper crane, his eyes wide with amazement and quickly ran off to show it to his mother. Shortly after, he came bounding back and gave me a hug that almost made me melt.

On my second night on board, I was awakened by a commotion of sounds and movement. I got up from my hammock and saw silhouettes of people carrying bags. Through the jumble of hammocks, I saw lights, and heard what sounded like a motorbike starting.

Off the boat

I moved towards the light and saw that it was a street lamp! We had docked in a small town. There was a row of shops facing the river. They were closed, but a cluster of people were standing under the florescent lights that lit the shop front.

I looked down and saw people exiting the boat with their luggage and rushing into the warm embrace of waiting family members and relatives. They had arrived home.

Villagers do their washing by the river.
Houses submerged by the rising Amazon River.

Once the passengers had disembarked, the workers started to unload the merchandise – boxes of instant noodles, cookies, shampoos, etc. I guess they were for the shops in the town. I went back to my hammock and fell asleep to the sound of heavy footsteps on the wooden planks.

We docked at five more towns along the way. Most stops would last around an hour, but there was one where we stopped for over four hours. At these stops, besides passengers disembarking and cargo being unloaded, the townsfolk would come on board and queue up in front of a small window at the cargo area.

At first, I thought they were paying for the goods that were being unloaded, but then I realised that they were actually buying medicines. Behind the small window was a pharmacy.

Boats like Voyager III are not only modes of transportation that link these isolated towns to the rest of Brazil, they are also moving dispensaries, bringing much-needed medicines to the local people.

Whenever we stopped, I would take the opportunity to get off the boat and wander around. Sometimes I would have a coffee with Alejandro in a shop to observe life in these Amazonian towns.

These towns don’t look any different from any other town in Brazil, or Malaysia, for that matter. There were tarred roads, concrete buildings, shops and schools. The only difference was that they were isolated, with no road connecting them to one another or the rest of Brazil.

The writer's boat arriving at one of the many little towns along the river.
One of the many boats that transport people and goods along the Amazon River.

Without realising it, I had got used to the monotonous rhythm of life onboard. I was in no rush to go anywhere. When I was tired from reading, and Alejandro from his bracelet-making, we would grab a drink at the bar and chat about our lives, our plans and our dreams.

Mancley and Nazinho would also seek me out to play with them. Unlike the children of urban society who rely on gadgets for entertainment, these children, in contrast, have a wealth of imagination and creativity. The whole boat cruising down the vast Amazon became their playground.

One morning, Alejandro woke me from my mid-morning nap and told me that we were about to arrive in Tabatinga.

Without our realising it, seven days had flown by. When the excitement of reaching our destination had passed, sadness engulfed me.

It was time to say goodbye.

Nazinho and Mancley came up to me as I was packing up. Nazinho had tears in his eyes and told me that he would remember me whenever he looked at the origami we had made together. Mancley, mischievous as always, said that he wouldn’t, but then proceeded to give me a very tight hug.

After we had disembarked, I turned to Alejandro. It was time for us to part as well. He was taking another boat to Peru and I was walking towards the border into Colombia. We gave each other a hug and promised to keep in touch.

I walked a few paces and then I turned back, and said a heartfelt “thank you” to the Voyager III. It not only brought me to my destination, but it also gave me a peek into the lives of the local people.

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