In the evening we went back to the square to have another caipirinha. The area was full of ‘hippies’ , which is the common name given to artisans – travellers who make jewelry from macramé or wire, often with dreadlocks, and usually smoking their funny-smelling cigarettes. But these hippies weren’t smoking, they were running a clown skills workshop for children! It was a lot of fun to watch – there must have been 40 or 50 people in the square, and they were learning to juggle, climb rope, climb on top of each other, and twirl batons. The children were having a great time, laughing and trying to better each other.
The nightlife was pretty much non-existent after sundown in Alter do Chao, so we generally slept quite early and woke up early to appreciate the beaches.
After a couple of days, Juan had to leave to continue his journey, but Carlos and I decided to stay on a bit longer. We found a man renting out paddleboats, which I confess to loving, but the best thing was an enormous swan boat that awoke the child inside me. Carlos was too embarrassed to translate for me, so I went over the guy and asked him in portunhol how much it would cost to rent the swan boat.
After I’d closed the transaction I of course forced Carlos to join me in the swan, which he did without too much complaining. In fact, the boat was heavy, difficult to turn, and kind of a pain, but we did get some excellent photos from the experience.
After a week of this – fish, beer, caipirinhas, beaches – it was time to get moving again.
Back on the boat!
The next day we hired kayaks and went out to explore the area.
Alter do Chao is at the junction of two rivers, Tapajós and Amazonas, which don’t mix. Because of this, one side of the island has brown water, and the other side is bright blue. You can see from my pictures the huge difference in the water.
The size and shape of Alter do Chao differs hugely at different times of year, as the rivers rise and fall. In our kayak trip we came across the roofs of bars and restaurants. When we were there, only the thatched tops were visible, and as we got closer we found that refrigerators and other appliances had been secured to the ceiling with rope! Later in the year, there would be a stretch of beach here, and the these bars would be full of tourists sipping caipirinhas and eating fish.
In Alter do Chao I also discovered the key to the mystery of blonde leg hair. You see, ever since I’d arrived in Manaus, I’d noticed a lot of women in this region had dark colouring, but blonde arm and leg hairs. I’d found this odd, but of course – it’s not something you can ask a stranger about. In Alter do Chao we came across numerous women on the beach covering themselves with a kind of white cream and laying in the sun for a while, before washing it off in the water.
Seemed more complicated than waxing or shaving to me, but oh well… each to their own…
Carlos was the kind of guy who laughed at you when you make a mistake, and this drives me crazy. Don’t patronize me you jerk… it’s your freaking language, of COURSE you speak it better than me! Arrgghh! I stopped trying altogether because of the supreme irritation I felt every time he chuckled at my errors. And of course, with Carlos around, I didn’t HAVE to speak Portuguese. I make him translate for me everywhere, sending him to buy beers or speak to the staff when necessary. My Portuguese was not coming along at all, and I hadn’t even started looking at the book Suelem had lent me.
It was ok; I still had plenty of time…
The next day we pulled into Santarem, and the 3 of us caught a bus to Alter do Chao, which is only about an hour away. We found ourselves a cheap hotel where we all shared a room, and changed immediately into beach gear.
Alter do Chao was beautiful! In fact, in 2009 it was chosen by English newspaper The Guardian as the most beautiful freshwater beach in the world. The town was tiny, and the beaches were lovely. It was already afternoon so we didn’t do much on the first day, just ate a fish lunch on the beach (yep… I had already decided that I was going to at least start eating fish), and then had some caipirinhas in the square. Actually, this was my first ever caipirinha – a typical Brazilian cocktail made from cachaça, lime, and sugar.
Delicious. I saw more of these caipirinhas in my future.
The food was all about the red meat. We were served a kind of stew with meat and vegetables, and the best I could do was pick the meat out and put it on Carlos’s plate. Of course, the liquid was all meaty, and the vegetable were cooked in the juice of the meat, but as they say – beggars can’t be choosers. So mostly I ate bread, rice and some meat-soaked vegetables.
Yes, my vegetarianism was looking precarious here in Brazil. This was not a veggie-friendly country right here.
The second day on the boat was a little quieter than the second, the novelty having worn off somewhat. I did a bit of reading, and drank considerably less. We saw a couple of dolphins that day, and Carlos explained the differences to me between the pink and grey dolphins. The pink dolphin’s dorsal fin is shaped like a hump rather than wave, and they tend to be less playful than grey dolphins. In fact, we saw a number of times in the journey that grey dolphins often jump right out of the water, whereas pink dolphins barely show their fin as they leave and reenter the river.
We met a friendly Spanish guy named Juan on the boat who started hanging out with us. This didn’t help my Portuguese, of course, since Carlos started speaking Spanish too. But actually, Carlos was not proving particularly useful to the development of my Portuguese. In fact, he was positively detrimental.
I wanted to go upstairs and sleep on the top deck, but I had no mattress, sleeping bag, pillow or ANYTHING, and apart from that they’d washed the floors and it was all wet up there.
I looked for another place to hang my hammock but the place was packed – there was nowhere else.
I eventually tried to curl up on the floor on top of my backpack but it was the most uncomfortable thing EVER. Carlos awoke to the sound of me whining and crying in frustration, swapped hammocks with me, and went back to sleep. The woman in his face didn’t seem to bother him at all!
The next morning when I awoke, the woman on top of me had either left the boat or moved her hammock. Not surprising really, given my incessant complaining and the elbows to her back!
The boat food was pretty bad. It was around this time that I’d started rethinking my vegetarianism. Several times in Manaus I’d found myself with nothing to eat but fish, rice, beans and salad. I know, rice beans and salad sounds like reasonable vegetarian food, but know this… beans in Brazil are cooked with big chunks of fatty red meat, and the ‘salad’ in and around Manaus consisted of slices of raw tomato and onion. I don’t even like raw tomato that much, and let’s face it… who loves big chunks of raw onion??
And now, on the boat, the only meal that was vegetarian was the breakfast. Bread and coffee. I guess I’d been prepared to eat fish, but how stupid I had been, imagining there would be fish on the boat!
The first thing to go sour for me was the music. The 80s music was fun until we discovered that it was one of only two CDs on the boat, and the bartender switched back and forth between that and a forró CD, which was pretty bad even BEFORE I heard it 600 times. After 24 hours on the boat, I never wanted to hear Marika or Belinda Carlisle again.
The next thing was the beer. After the cold ones ran out, they began to be kind of… nearly cold. I really, REALLY don’t like warm beer, particularly when it’s overpriced as well.
Still, we got by, even danced a few forró tunes. Until the nighttime.
Carlos and I went to sleep quite early (having been drinking in the sun all day), and I passed out like a dead person. However, at 2am I awoke and discovered why people advised ‘hang your hammock high’ – there was a woman in the hammock above me which was about 3 inches from my face. I couldn’t move or roll over without shoving her in the back with my shoulder or elbow! It was awful, I was so uncomfortable, and knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep like that. I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and this just wouldn’t work.
I tried to wake Carlos up hoping he would help me but he was pretty insistent in staying asleep.
Right then – I rolled out of my hammock (elbow, shoulder, knee to the woman’s back) and started looking around for an alternative arrangement.
The boat trip got off to a great start. We boarded at 10am, hung our hammocks on the sleeping deck downstairs, and went straight up to the top deck. A fantastic 80s CD was playing loudly, with such wonders as Rick Astley, Pet Shop Boys and Kylie Minogue. Well… there was nothing to do but order a cold beer right away.
As they say, it was 5pm somewhere in the world! (Afghanistan, actually – I looked it up).
Carlos and I put our feet up, popped a couple of cold ones open, and covered ourselves in sunscreen. We had 2 full days on the boat to Santarem, at which point we planned to get off, spend a few days in Alter do Chao (‘Caribbean of the Amazonas’, the propaganda said), and then continue down the river for another two days to Belem. Until then, of course, I planned to hang out in the sun, work on my tan, learn some Portuguese, drink some beer, and see some river dolphins.
As the boat left, I was filled with an excitement I hadn’t felt in a while. I’d really been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Years in fact, since a couple of my friends had done a similar trip through Brazil and told me about it! The music was great, the beer was cold, the company was good, and sleeping in hammocks was awesome..
Little did I know that ALL of this would change in the next few days.
Who could have thrown such an adorable creature into a trash pile???
I rescued the distressed little puppy from the trash and brought him back to my curious group of friends, while he whimpered and cried and tried to lick my face at the same time, kicking his legs trying to get up into the safety of my neck and hair. He was the most adorably ugly little dog I’d ever seen, with tiny flattened ears, big bulging goldfish eyes, and a squashed nose. Obviously, we took him home.
We gave him some milk and Marley named him Fedorento, which means ‘stinking’, in light of the fact that he came from a trash pile. He gave him a soapy bath which he tolerated without too much fuss. The poor little thing was so distressed he cried constantly, stumbling around the floor on his newborn legs looking for someone to hold him. Marley promised to take care of him and find him a home while we were travelling.
Suelem gave me a book to help me study Portuguese while I had time to kill on the boat, which would be really helpful, since I hadn’t actually started learning the language yet. All the people in the house spoke English and I was getting lazy. On the boat for sure, on the boat I’d learn Portuguese!
A few days later we were at the port, backpacks on, buying our tickets.
Oh how I love boats… this was going to be great.
I had to be honest… I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the sights of Manaus. I just wanted to stay somewhere air conditioned, perform some necessary tasks like washing my clothes, learn some Portuguese, and prepare for my boat trip.
So that’s what I did.
Apart from that, I spent a lot of time in the internet café downstairs correcting student writings for Englishtown. My hosts were surprised that I was lacking the expected tourist curiosity, but since none of them were actually from Manaus, nobody was offended!
We did go out for a drink one night with some other Couchsurfers in the area which was nice. The hot weather made for some lovely nights in which to sit outdoors and drink cold beer, and the central plaza we sat in was actually quite lovely. Marley and Suelem came with us, and it was a really pleasant evening. We met some nice local guys and their foreign guests, and conversation flowed as easily as the icy cold draught beer!
Later that night, we caught a bus to our area, and were walking the rest of the way when we heard a cry. We stopped to listen, and sure enough, a sad wailing cry was coming from the trash pile by the side of the road. It sounded to me like the cry of an infant removed from his mother, and I was going in to find out who was making it.
Manaus (which means "mother of the gods") is the capital of the state of Amazonas. It is situated at the union of the Negro and Solimões rivers, and is a popular ecotourism destination, with many tourists using it as a jumping-off point for jungle tours. Manaus has more than 2 million inhabitants.
Despite being located in the Amazon, Manaus has few green areas, and is really, really hot.
After an hour or so of buses (a major pain with my huge backpack), we arrived at Carlos’s apartment, where he lived with two housemates, Marlos and Suelem. They were both there when we arrived, Marlos studying at his computer and Suelem cooking. They were both really nice people, and welcomed me graciously, offering me food and juice and asking me questions about my journey. I was just happy to be able to take my stuff out of my backpack and relax for four days without rushing off on another bus trip.
I was really looking forward to the boat trip, and had been ever since I’d decided to visit Brazil! The trip from Manaus to Belém was 4 days and nights, although we planned to stop in Santarem and visit Alter do Chao as well. We would sleep in hammocks and watch the grey and pink dolphins from the top deck with cold beers, whilst cruising through the vast wild Amazon.
Now. How to get through 4 days in hot dirty Manaus first?
My bus arrived at 8am and Carlos was waiting for me. In fact, he’d been waiting for me since 6am, as my bus was 2 hours late, poor thing. We embraced, and I thanked him for picking me up... and for waiting for me for so long at such an early hour.
Carlos took my backpack and we stopped at a small eating stand by the terminal so he could introduce me immediately to Brazilian food. He ordered tapioca with coalho (local, white) cheese for each of us, and a cup of pre-sweetened coffee, which was so sweet it made me squint and shake my head. I’ve since learnt that Brazilians pretty much always drink their coffee this way. I still hate it! A country that grows some of the best coffee in the world… and they make their coffee ridiculously weak and pour kilograms of sugar into it!
Tapioca is an interesting food experience. It’s crispy and spongy at the same time, and whilst having very little flavour of its own, has a particularly interesting texture. It’s cooked into the shape and size of a pancake or crepe, and rolled up with butter, fried egg, or cheese inside. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not yet, but I was always up for new food experiences.
Manaus is really, really hot. Even at 8am, I was sweating and so was everyone around me when we boarded the bus for Carlos’ apartment. I had 4 days here before we started our trip, and was already losing any desire to walk around the city seeing things!
Couldn’t we just get on the boat and head north?
I had a phrases section in the back of the Lonely Planet, but I didn’t want to sit around reading it now. I wanted to get to Manaus as soon as possible! I quickly looked for how to ask if anyone spoke English or Spanish and approached a group of young men (figuring younger people would be more likely to be educated in foreign languages.
Luckily, the first man I approached Spanish and – feeling embarrassed to be an ignorant foreigner – I asked him where the bus station was.
The bus to Boa Vista left immediately and was quick, but upon arrival, I had to wait a couple of hours for the bus to Manaus, which would deliver me at 6am to my destination. I got myself something to eat at the terminal, and took the opportunity to start studying Portuguese. I’d downloaded some audio lessons to my mp3 player, and used them in conjunction with my lonely planet phrasebook to study the basics of the language.
It was really frustrating to be back at zero after finally having a reasonable grasp of Spanish. I had to ring Carlos – my Couchsurfing host and traveling companion in Manaus – and couldn’t even understand the instructions on my phonecard. I vowed to study hard and learn as much as possible from Carlos in the next few weeks. Portuguese had a lot of similarities to Spanish, so it shouldn’t be TOO hard to learn.
When I woke up the house was empty, and I did exactly what I was instructed. Made myself at home.
First order of business was the hot shower. I’m ashamed to say that I stayed in that shower for about 20 minutes, with no regard for his electricity or water bills. It had been SO LONG since my last hot shower!! After that I went through his cupboards to see what there was to eat. Fairly typical bachelor living, I’m afraid. I started the day with a hot-dog roll filled with Doritos corn chips and mayonnaise.
After packing my stuff together, I left Ricardo a loving thank-you note, and closed the door behind me. This time was going to the terminal super-early, even if it meant sitting around at the bus station for several hours.
I got my ticket, and killed a few hours in the internet café, and finally boarded the almost-empty bus, where I got to choose the movie we watched. It didn’t matter much – I promptly fell asleep, as always, and woke up towards the end of the journey.
My border crossing was painless, not particularly crowded, I stamped out of Venezuela, taxi’d over to Brazil, and stamped in, my visa being correct and in order (I’d applied and paid for it back in Bogota before leaving Colombia).
Of course, once I arrived in Brazil, I suddenly realised I DID have a problem. I didn’t speak a word of Portuguese. And I had no idea how to get to Boa Vista. I didn’t even know where the bus station was.
He was my knight in shining armour, in the way a knight in shining armour would be if I had personally written the book. First stop was the liquor store, where he bought 2 6-packs of cold beer and refused to accept any money from me. Then we went back to his apartment, where he showed me to my ‘couch’ – I had my own room, a huge bed, air-conditioning, and a HOT SHOWER!