Happy 34 Years

A 6 am arrival in a new city after finally falling asleep a few hours earlier was a bit of a harsh wake up, but we had reached Belem relieved that long distance boat travel would be shelved for a … Continue reading

The Domino Effect

We left the creatures and beauty of Alter Do Chao behind as we boarded the bus back to Santarém in order to catch a boat down the rest of the Amazon.  It was a bit of a shocker speaking Portuguese … Continue reading

No Hav’in-sects here

We had been in Brazil less than one week and already the country was in need of redeeming itself. After a futile attempt to buy a replacement camera in Santarém, we hopped a city bus to nearby jewel, Alter Do … Continue reading

Heart of Darkness

You’ve seen the movie Anaconda and dreamt of a lush broad-leaved canopy, damp days and exotic wildlife of the Amazon. Forget it all.  Manaus is a sprawling city of nearly 2 million people, in the heart of the Amazon jungle, that will ruin everything you’ve imagined about life in the jungle.  It’s unromantic, crowded garbage-lined sidewalks, chaotic traffic and less than fresh sticky air, didn’t leave us anxious to explore the jungle from this base.  In retrospect, we are glad we made that decision. Speaking with fellow travelers, Chris & Gemma (you’ll learn more about them later) from the UK, trekking in the Amazon Jungle is more idyllic from further up river. From our research it’s also more cost-effective and less travelled entering from either Bolivia or Peru.   In Manaus the prices were about $100USD per day per person, even when travelling in large groups.  This would have destroyed our monthly excursion budget and we may have been left craving a deeper experience.  Instead, we can venture in from the western edges of the jungle, for around $30 per day in a smaller group, so we’ll wait for our jungle time.

The best part of Manaus was the people we met.  First, Hugo and Sabine from Holland and an Argentinian couple who were very handy to have around to help with language difficulties.   Other than that, we arrived on an overnight bus, bought boat tickets for eastward travel down the Amazon, and left.  One night only.

Opting for the cheaper selection of boat tickets, we took the risk of having fake papers or hammock spaces beside the stinky toilets or noisy engine.  We lucked out.  A back door entrance, via motor boat transport from a separate pier delivered us to the boat that would be our home for the next 3 days. We were delighted to find that our tickets were valid and our four (the two of us along with Hugo and Sabine) hammocks had been hung in marked spaces near the front of the boat.  Our relief was soon smothered by an event that not only put an infuriating black mark on Brazil, but left us feeling invaded, targeted and vulnerable.  For the first time in 8 years of backpacking through over 30 countries,  it happened to us.  Yes; we could have been more careful, or maybe we let our guard-down, or maybe we’re just plain naïve. 

If you have ever been robbed, then you know it happens so fast.  There was a bit of disorientation when we boarded with finding our hammocks, and moving neighbouring hammock owner’s collection of boxes out from under our space.  We placed our packs down,  day pack beside and turned away for a minute.  We were within a foot of both of them the whole time.  Amused by the hammock set-up on the boat,  I wanted to take a picture.  I reached for my bag and I noticed the zipper was open. Someone other than our crew had been in there.  Luckily, they only took one thing.  Unfortunately, our most prized possession – our camera. Along with it, the memory card of the photos we had taken thus far on our trip and the opportunities we would miss during the time it takes to find a replacement. 

What a piss off.  Someone had to have seen something.  The worst part was, we knew it was someone close, maybe even the person directly beside us.  Knowing you have to sleep beside and share space with someone who has just stolen from you is quite unnerving.  Whoever took it, had it there with them, the whole time. 

This would never happen at home.  At home, even if it did and someone saw something, wouldn’t they stop it?  Wouldn’t they say something?  Probably not. We lean more towards avoidance of situations which don’t concern us rather than risk personal involvement and what may come with it.  On that boat, that day, no one said a word.  To the extreme contrary, they even avoided eye contact.

I was attached to that camera, but more than the material object – I love taking pictures.  It’s not about having something to show or share, it’s about the creative aspect of photography.  Capturing the character of a city,  the colour of a day, the smiles of friends – freezing those moments in time is something that brings me joy.  Over the last couple of weeks, without a camera, we’ve had to re-align our thinking.  Instead of “I wish we had a camera,  I would love to photograph this…”, we shifted, forced to pause, absorb and use the lens of our eyes to burn the image into mental storage. 

Obviously, we were on edge for the remainder of the boat ride, watching our stuff like hawks.  Laptop, cell phone, Ipod, money and all else valuable remained locked in our bags for the remainder of the journey. 

Two nights on the boat, getting used to sleeping like a caterpillar in a cocoon, we arrived in Santarém.  Joined by boat friends, Chris and Gemma and followed by a day of rest, charming Alter Do Chão began to rebuild the seductiveness of Brazil. 

My Burning Butt

We were happy to leave the fleas behind with passports in hand, containing visas for Brazil.  After discovering that due to bad roads, all of the large buses run by Interserv from Georgetown to the interior of Guyana have been cancelled – indefinitely,  we hopped a domestic flight to Lethem.  It was either that or a 30+ hours dodging potholes on an ass-bruising minibus .  On what  seemed to be the identical plane, run by a different airline that we took to Kaieteur Falls, we flew over the jungle and watched out the window as the bright green dense jungle transformed into rolling green mountains and met the desert-like Savanna approaching the Guyanese border town of Lethem. 

A small cowboy town  that does not yet have a map was a welcomed change from the dirt and over-your-shoulder watching of GT.  On the recommendation of some other travelers, we found our way from the airstrip to Mrs. Foo’s house.  A sweet lady, Mrs Foo rents out spaces in her guesthouse to people she feels comfortable with.  She doesn’t have a sign or any other advertising, you have to know who you are looking for and just ask around town to find out where she lives.  We were pointed in the right direction by the locals.  This was the perfect place for us; a comfortable retreat to get through the first blast of diarrhea, a familiar experience for any traveler.  Though pretty routine for two weeks into travel, this may have been provoked by the spicy fried curry from the night before.

 Mornings were pretty laid-back as we formulated a sort of routing – Dale working on school – Arielle practicing, followed by our staple make-shift morning breakfast of oats, fruit and yogurt bought from a local store.   Wanting to explore the area  a bit more, Mrs Foo was nice  to organize bike rentals for us from a neighbour.  At what was the equivalent of $12 each (way overpriced) we mounted piece-meal cruisers with one gear, bent cranks, iffy brakes and a steel seat.  Our plan was to ride to the local waterfalls and visit Indigenous villages along the way.

We set out in the direction we were pointed, but really had no idea where we were going.  Venturing towards the mountainous jungle in the distance, passing clay huts, never-finished brick foundations and children swimming in tiny clear rivers –we pedaled  for more than two hours.  At home, a two-hour bike ride, even in a rolling landscape like Vancouver is no big deal.  But at home, we have a road, and a bike built for that road as well as a seat built for a butt.  In Lethem, you have a mixture of bumpy  rock and deep sand trails, bug bits and a steel seat that chafes your skin at every pedal stroke.  Certainly a situation that calls for a mantra, “Enjoy the journey”.  We did find the waterfall, parched, dripping with sweat, and hungry.  Besides the chilly swim, our packed peanut butter sandwiches may very well have been the best idea every.   So good.  A different, more direct but not shorter route home proved more challenging.  Getting back on that metal seat which was responsible  for creating the blisters in the deep wet between your legs, and a bruised ass was a sort of self-torture.  Running low on water and heading into the sun it was a struggle for both of us.  Damn shitty bikes.  Again, the chaffing.  An hour and a half later, we creaked slowly into the driveway at Mrs. Foo’s.  Take an already undernourished  body, add sun stroke,  5 hours terrible cycling posture, plus blisters in areas we can’t write about here, equals one totally bagged shower-seeking human being,

We were grateful we went, but even more grateful we had set up a home-cooked dinner invite with Mrs Foo and her family.  The best food we’ve had so far, and not just because it was free!

After nearly a week in cowboy country, we were ready for Brazil.  A new country, different culture and a language we don’t speak were waiting for us.   Mrs  Foo’s son Jason was nice enough to drive us to the border, where we could walk into Brazil.  Nice to get the ride, crappy that the border was closed for two hour lunch break.  Time was tight when the border re-opened for us to catch the bus to our next stop.  Our first blast of Portuguese didn’t help the already slow border control, nor did it help us catch the bus.  We missed it.  And we were so happy we’d spent all that time and effort in Georgetown getting our visas for Brazil – the immigration officer didn’t even look them.

High Five – we are in Brazil.  Taxi from the border at Bonfirm to Boa Vista where we managed to fumble our way through enough Portuguese to catch the overnight bus past the equator to Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon.