Slow Boat to Manaus

I am cocooned. The thick red and black fabric of my hammock stretches hard and taut beneath me, the spare cloth I pull over me like a lid. I lie still enjoying the darkness, the faint smell of hessian sacking, the privacy of my own space however small and linear it may be. To my left I can feel the pressure of David’s body in his hammock as he sleeps, to my right I feel the rhythmical bump against my hip as my neighbour gently sways in her suspended nest.
Despite snug fitting ear plugs I can still hear the deep throaty rumble of the engines, feel the vibration juddering through the boat, the hammock, my body. Surprisingly none of this bothers me. The cramped space, the lack of privacy, the noise, the constant motion – I snuggle deeper, safe and warm and drift to sleep.


I am awake at 6am. Keen to have a few minutes of relative peace and space before others begin to stir I slowly extricate myself from my nighttime cocoon. It takes some finesse and agility to do this without disturbing my neighbours. Our hammocks hang so close to one another some seem as though they are fused together. They hang from the ceiling as though suspended from the underside of some vast, grey metal leaf. Crisscrossed at various heights and angles it’s only possible to see small chinks of light coming in from the other side of the deck.

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All too soon the bell rings out for breakfast and immediately this mass of multicoloured cocoons begin to writhe, and smooth brown limbs, bodies young and old, emerge from the folds leaving the hammocks limp and empty, like spent husks.
In our blue and white three decked boat, Monteiro II,

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we are motoring down the mile wide Amazon River (at some points it is as wide as 6 miles!), from Tabatinga, which lies on the border with Colombia, Peru and Brazil, to Manaus the state capital of Amazonas. One thousand watery kilometres which we’ll cover in 4 days … or so. No one can give us a definite arrival time; it all depends on the volume and flow of the water and the time we take to pickup and deliver people and supplies at the communities along the way.

The days slip by remarkably easily.  Much of my time is spent observing how others spend theirs. Young children race up and down, weaving between the hammocks playing games of tag, then chase after recent Christmas presents of brightly coloured plastic cars or try to stuff unlucky beetles down their friend’s t-shirt. The teenage boys play cards

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whilst the girls gather together to plait each others hair and preen in front of hand mirrors.  Snacks are eaten and phones are tapped upon

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Young lovers wrap themselves up in each other and mothers lie in hammocks, their chubby, heavy limbed babies suckling contentedly on a casually exposed breast

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Groups of men, their expressions making easy transitions between concentration and jovial banter, sit at white plastic tables playing game after game of dominoes. And all of us at some point will lean against the sides, elbows resting on the handrail, to watch the banks glide by.

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It’s all a variation on the same theme – red earthed banks gradually being eroded by the flow and flooding of the river, tall grasses partly submerged in the tea coloured water and mile after green mile of trees and tangled jungle.  It’s a gentle and soothing past-time just sitting and gazing at the passing scenery.  I use it as a meditation focusing on the view before me and inviting  my thoughts, when they come, to drift away on the wake we leave behind.

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Stopping at small communities provides some welcome punctuation to the journey and a chance to witness various aspects of a riverside life.  We regularly saw lone boats out fishing, but seeing several in one spot was a unique sighting

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Of course water taxis as the main form of transport were often seen, carrying buckets of silvery fish and women sheltering from the sun or the rain beneath bright umbrellas.  Amongst the taxis and the floating gas station which refuelled our boat we watched a pod of grey river dolphins breaking the surface of the water in the bay.

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Later in the year when the river is in flood it can rise by an incredible 30 feet so buildings are either floating or raised up on stilts – some looking a little the worse for wear.

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Although there is a trans-Amazonian highway which was built back in the 1970s these villages are many miles from it, so these boats often bring essential supplies. Each time we stopped a small swarm of locals would board the boat bringing baskets of fruit, trays of homemade empanadas, various plastic trinkets and at this stop a vast array of sunglasses – anything to encourage the passengers to contribute to the local economy!

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I had feared that 4 days on this slow, cramped, inactive journey would push me to the limits of my tolerance, so I am surprised by my calm, zen like acceptance of it all.  I stop looking at my watch and let go of the concept of time – I sleep when it’s dark, I wake when its light, I eat when the bell is rung.

I embrace the simple pleasures of reading, writing, playing with the children ‘next door’

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and connecting to nature through the weather.  There are spectacular skies formed from an eclectic mix of clouds

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and wild electrical storms where the smudged grey sky is cut through with jagged shafts of purple white light. Rainstorms which occur several times a day are biblical in nature. We scramble to secure the blue tarpaulins which cover the open sides of the boat before heading to the sheltered stern to gaze in awe as a liquid grey veil descends from the sky obliterating the view and merging seamlessly with the river.

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At the end of the day when the storms have passed we watch entranced as the sun sets and the sky slowly moves through a unique sequence of colours – blues to pinks, through golds to greys; the close of another day.

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There’s something very ordinary about this journey, the way we spend our days and the routine we’ve slipped into and yet in all the traveling I have done I have never experienced anything quite like this. I have an underlying fizz of excitement, disbelief that I am really here on this remote, romantic muddy ribbon of a river gliding through this vast ocean of forest – I go to sleep feeling enchanted.

 

Practicalities and Advice 

It was incredibly hard to find consistent information about the practicalities of the journey beforehand so if you’re planning on doing this trip I hope the following will be of help;

– In Leticia/Tabatinga you can only buy your ticket the day before you travel. Finding the ticket office in Tabatinga is nigh on impossible if you don’t speak Portuguese. Do yourself a favour and spend £5 extra per ticket to buy it in Leticia from an agent. Selva Ventura are reputable and efficient. 200,000 Colombian pesos.
– Despite what the Lonely Planet says, Tabatinga (Brazil) is on the same time as Leticia (Colombia), but getting to the port a good two to three hours before departure is a good idea. There are a lot of people queuing for the perfect place to sling a hammock!
– We were midway along on the starboard (right) side of the boat on the edge. This seemed the best place in terms of light, air, noise and smells.
– It can get breezy and cool and decidedly chilly at night. A blanket would be a nice luxury, but layers of clothing work just as well.
– Buy a good quality hammock, you’ll be spending a lot of time in it! In Leticia the price ranged from 40,000 – 70,000 pesos (£8 – £18)
– Get a short length of rope – someone will be selling these at the port – it’s useful when stringing up your hammock.
– Mosquitos weren’t a problem.
– I can’t guarantee this, but I think all the boats have free filtered drinking water. But for the sake of just over £1 buy a 5 litre water bottle to take with you.
– The food is plentiful, but if you’re a strict vegetarian you may struggle with eating rice and pasta at every meal. On our boat there was a small shop selling snacks, drinks and food like eggs and burgers.
– The water for bathing and hand washing comes from the river – if you don’t want to wash in this bring wet wipes.
– Earplugs are essential!
– There are power outlets for recharging phones and the like.
– Some boats have lockers – ours didn’t. Generally it felt very safe, but for peace of mind we kept money and passports on us at all times and other valuables locked away in our rucksacks which were by our hammocks. Luggage stays with you the entire time and you’re responsible for carrying it on and off.

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