From the deck of the Itaberaba I, the boat that will take us from Tabatinga to Manaus, we watch the sun set behind the river in a scandalous show of red lights that break through the few clouds that dare cross it. The sunlight shines on the colourful hammocks that adorn the decks and sway with the breeze and the movements of the boat. The moon smiles at the river as the Brazilian flag waves proudly, displaying its motto—Order and Progress—and we say goodbye to the Colombian border.
By now we’ve eaten a pork rib and pasta stew and, exhausted from waiting in the afternoon heat, we enjoy the view of the low embankments of the Amazon from our hammocks, a view that is somehow monotonous but never boring. It seems impossible that we’re finally here, eating a cupuaçu popsicle, which might not be in harvest in Colombia but seems to be in harvest in Brazil; as we savour the sweet taste of this Amazonian fruit, we sail away from the Brazilian port.
Our departure from Tabatinga was delayed, which isn’t surprising in such a hot, humid place. We finally left after being searched by Brazil’s Federal Police, who look for all types of contraband that can be smuggled over the borders. Shortly after setting sail, they stop us again, forcing us to wait nearly an hour while they thoroughly search the boat.
We prepare ourselves for the night with flashlights and sleeping bags, long pants and playing cards; in our hammocks, with the lights out, we anxiously wait for morning and what our first full day on board the Itaberaba will bring; I close my eyes thinking about the ports we will see on the way. But despite being so tired, it’s hard to fall asleep knowing we’re sailing along this great river of dark waters, watching the jungle fade into a silhouette that disappears as it melds into the blackness of the sky.
Our sleep was interrupted by the ship’s horn which noisily announced our first stop at port. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, we finally continue our journey to the south-east. The night is cold but the locals sleep with bare arms and legs while we shiver, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags.
Dawn quickly reveals the grey silhouette of the jungle as it appears beneath the heavy mist that covers the river and the sky at sunrise; in the early morning, only the trees are visible while the rest of the universe is covered by a thick white blanket. The day begins with loud bells and bright lights, and the sun, just as red and strong as it was at sunset, shines on the river from 6am. We have breakfast—a very sweet milk coffee and small ham and cheese sliders—and get ready for the next 24 hours on board.
At 10 in the morning, when the temperature has risen drastically and we’ve had time to wash some clothes and organise our luggage, which we strap in a mound between our hammocks, we get another visit from the Federal Police. They check our passports and react with surprise and admiration when they learn we’re in Brazil as temporary residents, with a permit to stay in the country for two years.
We stop by several ports on the way, like São Francisco de Assis, a community built on the banks of the river, dotted with colourful little houses made of concrete and wood, topped off with tin roofs that must get very hot in the dry season and cause thunderous noise during the rainy season’s storms. The horn finally blows and we continue on our way.
The day passes without much incidence. We sleep, we eat, we stare at the landscape that begs for the heavy rains to come; the horizon is strewn with dry, white treetops and is coloured by dusty orange beaches. We play UNO, talk to other passengers, and look after the mosquito bites we brought from Leticia.
The bells that announce lunch and dinner—served approximately between 10:30am-12:30pm and 5-7pm, respectively—make the passengers rejoice; they line up to be the first ones into the dining room, though most of them don’t even bother to look out when the river dolphins swim past or the macaws fly over the jungle. When the sun sets, the water is dyed with pastel blues and pinks; the lights come on and we prepare for another cold night sailing the Amazon.
The cold we were expecting during the night only came with the morning fog. But before it was cold, before we saw the stars, the half moon shone bright red, its reflection twinkling on the river; I’m still thinking of the moon when I wake up. The morning smells of rain; the sky is grey, the wind is cold, and the sand on the beaches rolls around in furious whirlwinds. A few raindrops drive the passengers to their hammocks, but the rain soon stops and the temperature rises. It hasn’t been raining enough and the river is dry, making our passage difficult at times.
When the Navy visits us again, armed and photographing everyone on board, we find out they’re mostly searching for illegal trade of wild animals rather than drugs, as we assumed; it’s the breeding season for most of the exotic species of the region, so there’s a higher incidence of trafficking right now. The engines start up again as soon as they’re off board. Boredom and cabin fever start affecting people, with every game, magazine and book finished, just like our patience. We spend the day sleeping, eating, and playing UNO.
The sun penetrates through the heavy fog while the incessant bells ring, announcing breakfast. Again, it’s sweet milk coffee and small ham and cheese sliders. Routine is starting to weigh on me, and the boat’s passengers are becoming all too familiar, each one with his or her own particularities, so I spend my time observing them, wondering if they’re watching me, too.
There’s a woman in her 50s, for example, who sleeps in a yellow knitted hammock and wears a flower-print gown to bed. She has trouble sleeping, so she spends the nights walking up and down the deck while her husband struggles to stay awake, waiting for her to join him by his side.
There’s the eight-year-old boy who either stumbles by half asleep, forced by his mother to bathe and eat, or runs by yanking the strings of every hammock, unworried whether there is someone sleeping in them or not. He finally got smacked behind the head today by his mom, who realised he woke up a man who was taking a nap.
There’s a 30-something year-old woman, her hair dyed platinum blonde, who wears very tight and feminine dresses, and has a prominent varicose vein on her left leg, shaped like a half-moon that travels down from her thigh to her calf. Delirious from the heat and movement of the water, I imagine it’s a scar left by one of the many sharks that visit the beaches of Brazil’s Atlantic coast.
And of course, there are our neighbours. Right next to us, there are two very young mothers with their babies. One of them is thick and has big hips, with very straight hair and almond-shaped eyes; she sways her calm, skinny baby in the hammock all day long. The other is very thin and dark-skinned, and looks absolutely exhausted from chasing around her son, a huge, loud kid, strong and stubborn, so big he has his own hammock hanging above his mother’s. He crawls around the deck with his tear-stricken face, in diapers held up by underwear made for a 4-year-old.
And there’s the old lady with the long, grey hair, who seems to never get up from her hammock, not even to go to the bathroom. She silently watches everyone around her as she eats saltines and drinks coffee. She’s always worried because we’re the last to eat and she’s sure the food will run out, although there’s always enough for seconds.
The confirmation that we will arrive at Manaus at 6 in the afternoon and not midday as was rumoured among the passengers—probably because during the rainy season the boat comes in earlier—has dampened last night’s excitement, and we all settle in for the last leg of the journey, which will finally take us to Brazil’s Amazonian capital after 96 hours of travel. The lunch bells ring, calling us for our last meal in the cool dining room—the only space onboard with air conditioning. We have grilled chicken, rice, beans, spaghetti, and farinha, a thick, crunchy yucca flour. Despite the strict and early schedule of our meals, I’ll miss the food on the Itaberaba I.
The closer we get to Manaus, the more frequently we see small communities along the river, each with an imposing church, and some with electric posts and even cars and motorbikes, which is surprising considering they’re completely surrounded by the thick Amazon rainforest. Fishermen work in wooden canoes, casting their nets into the river and covering themselves from the harsh sun with colourful umbrellas. We take another nap, the third of the day, just to pass the time.
We see the silhouettes of big factories glowering amidst the smoke caused by forest fires; seeing the industrial mammoths that puff dark clouds into the hazy sun is a sure sign we’re getting close to the city. The captain tells me we’re nearing the meeting of the waters, the place where the Amazon River and Negro River meet without mixing, their waters visibly separated, as if dancing to an exotic and playful rhythm, where neither river gives in to the other, refusing to relinquish their territory. The chocolate waters of the Amazon and the black waters of the Negro create a clear line we can see from afar, signalling our arrival in Manaus.
The sun looks like it’s been drawn on the sky as it sets between the jungle and concrete, showing itself as it truly is: a live, incandescent ball of red fire. A few dolphins play around the ships, welcoming us to the city. After a long wait, Manaus appears in the darkness in an impressive show of lights. Despite preparing myself for the unexpected, this big, bright city of 2.5 million people surrounded by the Amazonian night surprises me.
Anxious and excited, we disembark the Itaberaba with our luggage and cross a tiny bridge that towers above the black waters, and shakes with each passenger’s urgent steps, every one of us impatient to step on dry land.