Leaving Manaus on the morning of December 23, 2015 was not at all what I thought it would be. It’s midnight and I’m sitting on the top deck of the Amazon Star, the boat that will take me to Belém, thinking about how I was robbed last night. Just a few metres away from the hostel, two men on a motorbike assaulted me and two other friends. It all happened so fast, and although my instinct told me to run, the gun the thief had in his pants forced me to eventually allow him to rip my bag off my shoulder.
I tell myself it was a life lesson, I tell myself now I know better than to go out carrying things I won’t need, especially at night; as I try to forget all the things I had in my bag—sunglasses, two small note pads, a lock, a USB stick, my phone—I tell myself it could’ve been so much worse. But I’d had a long day and I wasn’t thinking clearly, and being so close to Christmas, the robbery shouldn’t have surprised me. People, desperate to bring presents home, go out in search of easy prey on dark nights in the city centre. I try to forget the robbery by looking up at the black sky of the Amazon.
Despite boarding the boat at 7:30 am, there were only a few spaces left; I had to hang my hammock up in the middle of the crowded deck, surrounded by rows and rows of hammocks on either side. I think about how I could not only have a better spot but could have avoided the robbery had I slept on the boat the night before sailing. I know it’s useless to think about all the things I could have done differently to avoid the robbery, or my discomfort on the boat, but I can’t help replaying it all in my head in the darkness of the night.
The lights are still on when I go back down to the middle deck, which is so full of hammocks and luggage, I have to crawl under the sleeping passengers just to get in and out of my hammock. There are so many people, every movement triggers a tremor that shakes the intertwined hammocks, feet and heads dangerously close regardless of what position you choose.
While some people sleep, others read their Bibles and sing Christmas songs; I’m sure it’s hard for them to be stuck aboard a ship over the holidays, so they try to invoke a sense of normalcy during the long journey along the Amazon River. I still have hope that at least some people will disembark at the ports along the way, although I’m preparing myself for the very real possibility of being stuck among the crowds until I reach Belém, a city on the shores of the mouth of the great river.
Most of the lights were switched off at 2 am, and well after 7 am, they still haven’t been turned back on despite the darkness on deck, caused partly by the dim, grey sky (or is it smoke again?) and partly by the towels that hang from the ceiling, covering the windows, filtering the little light that comes in. Someone walked around, ringing a bell, just before 6 am to announce the start of the day.
After a shower, I go into the dining room on my level and buy the big breakfast: for $10 Reales, I get juice, milk coffee, bread, ham, cheese, a fried egg, and a selection of fruit. There’s another breakfast for $5 Reales, which is just bread, milk coffee, and some sort of rice pudding. Sitting at one of the five blue tables in the room, I realise I’m the only person having the $10 Real breakfast; other than two couples who are sharing it, everyone else is smothering butter on their $5 Real piece of bread, hoping to make it more substancial.
We make our first stop in the port of Parintins, but only a few passengers disembark. The day is cold (well, tropical cold) and the sky is completely white, contrasting sharply with the chocolate coloured waters of the Amazon. Lying between the bright hammocks that hang over the floor, which is already littered with garbage, I listen to snoring, crying, singing; I’m invaded by the smell of smoke that comes from the jungle; I keep reading until I fall asleep for the first nap of the day. As I fall asleep, I think about how different my trip aboard the Itaberaba, from Tabatinga to Manaus was, more than two months ago already.
People’s excited voices and the silence of the engines woke me up from my nap. We make a quick stop at the port of Juruti, where I finally see blue skies, free of smoke. Wanting a change of atmosphere, I go upstairs to the top deck where there’s a completely different feeling to the relative silence downstairs: upstairs, where the sun and the warm breeze are strong, there’s music and people are having animated conversations, most of them drinking beers, taking selfies, enjoying the landscape and the journey. But there are so many people I can’t find a chair, so I sit on the floor and look out at the beaches and the dry trees of the jungle. It’s the same landscape I saw from the Itaberaba, although the vegetation isn’t as thick and trees are smaller and further apart, at least near the shore.
After a short but heavy rain, we stop at Obidos, in the state of Para, where there are little yellow school boats moored by the shore, one of my favourite sights so far. There are fireworks at sunset, probably to celebrate Christmas. With the air conditioning switched off and the windows open, it’s unbearably hot in the hammocks, and I’m still praying people will disembark in Santarem to spend the holidays with their families.
I was relieved to see a lot of people were getting off at Santarem when we arrived just after 8 pm. Although I left my hammock in the same spot, I can stretch diagonally now without bumping into feet, elbows or heads, and I can even get out without crawling under everyone else. This is specially good news because I heard we’re spending the night at port.
My happiness and comfort of stretching out was short-lived; dozens of passengers going to Belém got on the boat in the morning, although there aren’t as many people as that first day we left Manaus. I also found out they sell hot ham and cheese sandwiches in the little cafeteria on the top deck, which would have been a much better option for last night’s dinner, since I bought (and couldn’t finish eating) a huge plate of meat, rice, pasta, and farinha.
We left Santarem at around noon, and I saw a beautifully unexpected surprise: another meeting of the waters as spectacular as the one near Manaus. The river waters here are turquoise and chocolate, and their dance creates a dividing line that contrasts against the green jungle that surrounds the river. My hope to see Alter do Chão now, instead of waiting until I return in nearly two years, intensified and then evaporated with our departure.
A few hours later, talking to a group of women who were tweezing each other’s hairs and popping each other’s pimples on the top deck, I hear we’re not arriving in Belem tomorrow as I expected, but early the following morning. This means spending one more night aboard the Amazon Star. To process this new information, I decide to drink.
Sitting there with a cold beer, trying to follow the women’s quick conversations in Portuguese, I notice the river here is much wider than before, giving meaning to its reputation as the widest in the world, even during the dry season which has exposed the riverbanks and beaches of the Amazon. After drinking too many beers, bought by a man trying to conquer one of the women I’m talking to, I finally go downstairs to eat and sleep.
A lot of people boarded at Monte Alegre, filling up the boat even more than the first day we left Manaus. My anxiety over our arrival is only worsening with the claustrophobia. I slept crammed between the other hammocks, which are so close together it’s impossible to move without bumping into someone, or staying still without my neighbour crashing into me. We’re all on top of each other, and even the hallways are occupied with the hammocks and luggage of all the passengers who boarded overnight.
When I wake up from a long nap in the afternoon, I look out the window and see the jungle. I know I’ve been travelling through the Amazon for over two months, but this is the first time I actually see the jungle in Brasil just as you would imagine it: thick, lush, green, vibrant vegetation hanging over the river. We sail by small communities who live in wooden houses that are barely visible behind the coconut trees and mangroves. The indigenous people approach the boat in their small canoes, waiting for the passengers to throw bags of food and clothes into the river. Under the strong sun and the blue sky, we slowly make our way through the narrow channel that gives us respite from the monotony of the last few days. I feel that, although I left the state of Amazonas behind, I only just arrived in the jungle.
We make one last stop overnight at the port of Breves and my anxiety hits its peak; I’m desperate to sleep far away from the girls who move my hammock all day and the man who snores all night; tired of the filthy bathrooms and crawling on the grimy floor; done with the R$5 beers and seeing the same curious faces that stare all day; I need to get off this vessel.
Unable to sleep among the crowd, I spend the last night awake, watching the sky as it goes from a deep black to a soft purple and eventually a bright blue. I see Belém in the distance, bathed in the light of sunrise, surrounded by clouds. The size of the city surprises me; the tall buildings by the river, the clean, modern port. I arrive at the hostel to eat and sleep and recover from this journey which ended up being much harder than I imagined, but also made arriving in this new city all the more satisfying.