As I sit here, looking out of my second-story window in Santa Marta, Colombia, I think about how it’s already March and it’s a bit late to be recapping the last year of My Nomadic Life in Brazil. But if you’ve followed my blog longer than a month, you know this is normal behaviour and you’ll forgive me!
2016 was an incredible year that I’m still trying to process. So here’s a quick look back at all the amazing places I was lucky enough to see the past year, and some motivation for an even better 2017!
Estoy sentada mirando por mi ventana en un segundo piso en Santa Marta, Colombia, pensando que ya es marzo y es un poco tarde para estar recapitulando el último año de Mi Vida Nómada en Brasil. Pero si has seguido mi blog más de un mes, sabrás que este comportamiento es normal y me perdonarás!
El 2016 fue un año extraordinario que todavía estoy tratando de procesar. Así que aquí va una mirada rápida a todos los lugares tuve la suerte de visitar el último año, y un poco de motivación para un 2017 aún mejor!
I started the year off in Belém, in Brazil’s northern coast, where the Amazon and the Atlantic meet…
Empecé el año en Belém, en la costa norte del Brasil, donde el Amazonas y el Atlántico se encuentran…
Then I visited São Luís, the historic capital of Maranhão…
Después visité São Luís, la capital histórica del Maranhão…
And the Lençóis Maranhenses, which were spectacular even though they were dry.
Y a los Lençóis Maranhenses, que fueron espectaculares a pesar de estar secos.
I enjoyed the coloured sands and deep ocean of Ceará…
Disfruté de las arenas coloridas y el agua azul del Ceará…
I travelled further south to Recife, the colourful capital city of Pernambuco…
Viajé más hacia el sur a Recife, la colorida capital del Pernambuco…
…before going back north to Rio Grande do Norte, one of my favourite states in Brazil, where I stayed a few months.
…antes de subir a Rio Grande do Norte, uno de mis estados favoritos en Brasil, donde me quedé varios meses.
I flew down to Rio de Janeiro in June, a city I hadn’t been to since New Year’s 1997-98!
Volé a Rio de Janeiro en junio, una ciudad que no visitaba desde año nuevo 1997-98!
I left Brazil in July and travelled to Florida in the USA.
Salí de Brasil en julio y viajé a la Florida en los EEUU.
Back in Brazil, I flew back north to finally see the lovely Bahia, a place that stole my heart.
De regreso en Brasil, volé al norte otra vez para finalmente ver la hermosa Bahía, un lugar que se robó mi corazón.
After a few months of beaches and sunshine, I faced the enormous and wonderful city of São Paulo.
Después de varios meses de playas y sol, me enfrenté a la enorme y espectacular ciudad de São Paulo.
I went home for the holidays and spent some time in Medellín and Santa Marta…
Volví a casa para las vacaciones y pasé tiempo en Medellín y Santa Marta…
…before going to Uruguay for the end of year!
…antes de irme para Uruguay a terminar el año!
2016 was a fantastic year and 2017 is already promising exciting new places for me to visit! To see the complete photo galleries, click on the captions or visit my Travel Galleries page. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @LauraRepoOrtega
El 2016 fue un año fantástico y el 2017 ya promete luagres nuevos muy emocionantes para conocer! Para ver las galerías completas, haz clíck en los pie de foto o visita my página de Galerías de Viajes. Sígueme en Facebook, Instagram y Twitter @LauraRepoOrtega
As my thirtieth birthday approaches, I find myself constantly thinking about time. I think about its role in our lives, how it influences our decisions and our actions; I think about how we try to manoeuvre it, wishing it to bend to our desires; I think about our perception of it when we look back, and what we imagine it to be when we look forward.
Olinda, Pernambuco, Brasil
We live in a world that tries to manipulate time; we name it, measure it, count it, as if nomenclature could give us control, as if we could ever master it. This notion of control is fundamental in our understanding of the world we have constructed, and it rules most of what we do, from when we eat and when we work, to when we’re supposed to hit milestones like marriage and parenting. But I’ve always known that’s not the world I want to inhabit; I love living in a world where time is a concept as flexible and untameable as space, where the constraints of forces greater than us are respected but not idolised, where time is considered our greatest asset and most valuable currency. So I changed my world by starting on an exciting nomadic journey.
Although the ‘real’ world and my nomadic world occupy the same space, and exist simultaneously, the world of the traveller is one in which time works for us rather than against us; we who inhabit it have chosen to give up control and have freed ourselves from the traditional restrictions that attempt to overpower nature. Like-minded people live in this parallel universe, floating from one adventure to the next, sleeping in hammocks, sharing music, swapping stories and sometimes more, making friends, re-routing plans, falling in love, learning to say goodbye, following our hedonistic whims to the nearest paradise, all while blissfully unaware what the day of the week it is. Many might say we’re living in an unrealistic, utopian dreamworld, detached from responsibilities, but we like to think of it as controlled chaos, spontaneous planning, a sustainable life of surprise that lets us follow whichever path we choose on any given day.
Morro Branco, Ceará, Brasil
In this universe, Monday and Thursday and Saturday are the same as the other four days of the week; for me, any day can be a day off, any day can be a work day. We don’t gauge time by numbers on a calendar, but by what we can get done in that space of time. That doesn’t mean we disregard time altogether, but we perceive it differently. Rather than filling in slots on a roster, waiting for the clock to hit that magic number so we can run out, escape the burden of pretending to have the ability to ‘manage’ time, we strive to answer questions like: How long can I spend by the beach? How much work do I have to do before, during, or after? How long will the bus take, how far do I have to walk? How many beers can I drink in the meantime? When does my visa run out?
Maragogi, Alagoas, Brasil
When we travel, we learn to really appreciate time; how quickly it can move, how flexible it is, how much we can squeeze into any given hour, week, or year, and how easily it can be lost. Right now, it seems impossible to me that only twelve months have passed since last May—it honestly feels like a short lifetime ago. And yet it feels like it was just yesterday. How many lives have I lived in the past year, I wonder? How many soulmates have I met, how much have I learned, discovered, let go of? The last year of my life seems to live simultaneously in the distant past and the present; so much has happened since that I can’t help but question the veracity of the calendar’s claims to measure my experiences, to quantify them into numbers so that they’re more easily digestible.
Recife, Pernambuco, Brasil
As the months pass by, I realise I can only tell them apart by the cities, accents, faces, and beaches that are attached to my memories, and as I move—on, away, back—I learn that time refuses to be measured or constricted, morphing into whatever shape suits it best, unconcerned by our desires or needs and specially our plans. And as travellers, we have learned to not only accept but embrace its rebelliousness; we have learned that hours only matter in terms of bus schedules, months in degrees and millimetres of rain; we have learned to prioritise weight and distances. Our search for adrenaline and novelty takes over as time becomes an impatient ally who we know can choose to stop being so generous at any moment.
Lagoa Bonfim, Rio Grande do Norte, Brasil
So maybe we are running away, maybe it is irresponsible to live off the grid, allowing politics and monthly bills to become nothing more than a faraway memory; maybe we should care more about appearing in countless photographs wearing the same ragged clothes, eternally highlighting our simple but functional wardrobe and our unwillingness to conform to fashion trends or societal expectations of what we should look like, in this day and age, at our age. But we are otherwise preoccupied experiencing beautiful moments, fulfilling dreams, and creating collective memories. We have forged a supportive community that strives to live sustainably, happily, and fully, and in a world that seems to have lost its way and identity, we have chosen not to be bound by time, but rather freed by the possibilities it offers.
Before I reached Fortaleza, I was feeling a bit stuck in Barreirinhas, not feeling quite at home, dreaming of the beach and the Lençóis Maranhenses, a national park in Brazil’s state of Maranhão. The park is made up of 155,000 hectares of white sand desert, and during the rainy season, hallucinating lagoons fill up the spaces between the enormous dunes which can be up to 40 metres high. Sadly, I was there during the dry season and only one of the lagoons had a tiny bit of water. Determined to see this place, even without the water, I decided to walk there from Barreirinhas with one of the local guides, Maduro.
I wanted to connect with nature like I did in the Amazon; I wanted the freedom that I only seem to get from physical exercise in a natural setting. I was so excited to get there, I didn’t worry about getting there and didn’t really consider what walking there would entail when I agreed to go. I got up at 4:15 am when it was still dark and even a bit chilly, had a quick, cold shower to completely wake myself up, gulped down a huge cup of coffee and some bread, and by 5:00 am, Maduro and I were walking out of town.
At about 5:20 am, we crossed the beautiful Preguiças River on a small ferry, and my struggle began as soon as we got off at the other side in Cantinho. The roads aren’t paved in Cantinho; in fact, they’re more like flowing rivers of sand than paths. And because it had rained overnight, the sand was wet on the surface but still loose underneath. This made what would already be difficult so much harder because a thick layer of sand got permanently stuck on my bare feet and grew heavier with every step, weighing me down and making me sink ankle-deep into the sand.
Maduro wasn’t struggling, of course, having walked through the sand his whole life. I would lose him sometimes beyond a curve in the path, behind the shrubbery, and consider running back, giving up, escaping this endeavour that was requiring way more effort than I had originally intended to exert. But I kept my mind focused on the sand dunes, on the sheer magnitude of this place I was about to see, and my stubborn reluctance to give up persevered.
We walked for about four hours over the wet sand, surrounded by shrubs and cacti, a few caju (cashew) trees, and plants that breed all sorts of strange and delicious fruit, like the jatoba and guajiru, which I greedily gobbled up as I told myself to enjoy the journey and not worry about how long it was going to take… But, how much longer will it take, Maduro? All he’d answer was, “What, you tired?” smile, and effortlessly walk ahead.
I was sweating so badly, I was licking the sweat off my own face to rehydrate. OK, catching the sweat with my tongue as it dripped down to my mouth was most likely just a reflex, but as I tasted the salty liquid that was mercilessly pouring down my face, I convinced myself it was probably a sustainable method of rehydration.
Just over half-way there, I looked up and saw a wooden bridge. I couldn’t believe it, firm land! I did my best to run toward it, sinking in the sand, blinded by the sweat, exhilarated at the thought of walking on solid ground for just a little bit. And it really ended up being a little bit—just over 4 metres to be exact. It was incredibly satisfying, so we stopped to rest for a few minutes and drink some water (rather than sweat) before moving on.
I kept telling myself, “You’ll make it, you’ll survive, don’t even think about the way back,” as I tried to keep up with Maduro. And then I saw them: dunes so big and white they looked like snow-capped mountains. I couldn’t believe it, we were there, I had made it to the Lençóis Maranhenses! At that moment, the exhaustion left my body, my legs were reenergised, my mind clear of worries or anxieties, and my smile huge and breathless.
We walked up one of the big dunes which led to one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever seen: rows and rows of white, yellow, and orange sand dunes, carved by deep crevasses (where the water gathers when it rains) and dotted by bright green shrubs and a few wind-swept trees. The immensity of this place left me speechless and made me feel so small; we were no more than specs moving along this unforgiving terrain. We walked toward the only lagoon that had water in it, to satisfy the promise of cooling off and taking a rest.
We reached the small Lagõa do Peixe—Fish Lagoon—which might have had 30 cm of blackish water at the most, but we dove in happily as a light rain started falling. I rolled down a dune and fell straight into the water, swimming among the tiny fish. On land, miniature frogs the colour of the sand jumped almost imperceptibly away from us. It definitely wasn’t what I’d seen in the pictures (do yourself a favour and Google this place), nor what I imagined as I looked at the deep spaces between the dunes, where traces of the water were still visible, but it completely stole my heart; the channels that become rivers after a heavy rain were teasing me with the promise of turquoise lagoons amid the white sand, and it was absolutely spectacular.
While Maduro took a nap under a tree, I explored the dunes with my camera. After a couple of hours of roaming around, being extremely careful to not lose sight of the lagoon, and eating some sardines and crackers, we saw a group of tourists arrive in a 4×4. Just like he’d planned (but refused to promise), he spoke to the driver who agreed to give us a ride back to town. Despite having spent an amazing morning in one of the most beautiful places in the world, hearing the news that I wouldn’t have to walk all the way back was one of the best moments of the day.
As we walked under deep, grey clouds to where the cars were packed, Maduro turned around and said, “It’s about to rain…hard.” About 30 seconds later, a storm exploded over our heads. The wind was so strong, I wasn’t sure if it was the water or the sand that was blasting against me, but it hurt! I was soaking wet and so happy. The rain slowed down by the time we got in the car and started making our way back. The ride was bumpy and branches were whipping my legs and arms as we raced through the trees, but it was still better than walking back.
Photographs of my second boat trip in Brazil, from Manaus, in the Amazon, to Belém, on the mouth of the Tapajós River near the Atlantic coast. Read the story of this journey here. / Fotografías de mi segundo viaje en barco en Brasil, de Manaus, en el estado de Amazonas, a Belém, en la desembocadura del río Tapajós cerca la costa Atlántica. Lee la crónica del viaje aquí.
I’ve been reading a lot recently about the reality behind popular blog posts and how the lives of travel bloggers in particular are glamourised to get more likes and shares on social media platforms. Of course, it can’t be denied that some bloggers hide some of the truth to spare their followers from having to witness the boring or difficult side of perpetually travelling, like the long waits at bus stations and airports, uncomfortable rides in trucks and motorbikes, and sometimes more downtime than you know what to do with.
I’m actually living a pretty normal life, I just happen to be doing it on the move, on the road, in Brazil. I do normal things like worry about my safety (it’s messed up that I find this normal), which has put a damper on my ability to photograph many of the beautiful cities I’ve been in, because it’s not safe to walk around with a camera. I’d love to share what I see when I’m walking down the street, but sometimes all I can do is burn these images in my head and hope to never forget them; like the 17 year-old with a cart full of liquor in front of a comic strip piece of graffiti, or the man chopping up fish in a hole in a bright orange wall under the hot midday sun in Fortaleza.
But life goes on, changing pace and rhythm, moving through the colours and smells and sounds that make up a city. The same things that made up my life in Colombia make up my life here: I go grocery shopping, I cook, wash, clean, wake up early, stream bad shows at night, worry about my budget, wonder when I can take a night off or spend the morning at the beach. Except here, I don’t have the comforts of home that make all these menial tasks much easier than they are on the road.
I’m also always on-call at work, which means it doesn’t matter if it’s Sunday or Tuesday or Friday, I need to be available. But in spite of the restrictions of a regular life, I do also have the privileges of a remote lifestyle. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I travelled nearly 170 km south of Fortaleza to Canoa Quebrada, a town on the coast that’s been invaded by the French, the British, the Portuguese, and eventually, the hippies. The story says it was a Pakistani man who left the biggest mark on the small town by carving a crescent moon and star in one of the beachside cliffs—a symbol that still represents the town today.
Although I worked every single day I was there, I always managed to take beach breaks and take some time in the evenings to taste the local food and smell the salty air. I loved walking around the cobble-stone streets and down to the beach, swimming in the rough water and admiring the Atlantic coastline from the high cliffs. It was great to escape the city for a few days and be closer to nature; it revitilised me and made going back to Fortaleza pretty hard.
Besides my blog and other internet-based projects, I’m also doing work exchange at hostels; I already finished my work in Fortaleza, capital city of the state of Ceará, and I’m working at two more hostels in Recife and Natal. To stay on schedule, I was only able to stay a week in São Luís, the capital city of the state of Maranhão, a much shorter time than I would have liked. And I had so much work during that week (which I’m so grateful for, by the way) that I didn’t even have the chance to see much of the city or even go to the beach. And it’s understandable that these aren’t the type of things that we post as travel bloggers, because I’m not about to take a photo of myself working just to show you what I look like sitting down with my computer.
I know that if I only highlighted my days spent at the beach or in the jungle, my readers could easily think I’m living an idyllic life frolicking on beaches and visiting 400 year-old cities—which OK, I am doing—but it’s not all I’m doing. I’ve honestly spent most of the past two months sitting in hostels, on my laptop, working away while all the other guests go out sight-seeing, spending their days drinking beer at the beach or dancing in some reggae bar downtown.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, though I wouldn’t complain about having more time to spend at the beach or walking through centuries-old cities built with colourful Portuguese tiles, either. But that’s the reality of My Nomadic Life: work still comes first, play second. And most days I’m too tired after work to do much else.
But then I think, if those are my ‘problems’, I definitely wouldn’t trade them for anyone else’s, and that’s the beauty of my life: it’s not just about travelling, about beaches and exotic meals, but about the freedom to choose the lifestyle that suits me best. And that’s what I think everyone should strive for: doing what you love and making it sustainable. Yes, I love to travel, I love to move around and learn about new places and people, but that’s not necessarily what everyone wants, or the kind of life everyone will thrive on.
So I think that rather than talking about the glamorous side of travelling (cuz it’s mostly not!), we should change the discourse to distinguish that we (nomads, if you will) don’t leave our stable lives to travel simply because we can, but because we must. And if you mustn’t, then don’t; if a nomadic, uncertain life isn’t for you, don’t go chasing it just because it’s ‘in’ or because you think it’s what you should do…according to the internet.
I believe at the end of the day, no matter what kind of life you choose, it’s the little moments that matter, the ones we should treasure, because it’s those precious seconds and images that add up to become days and weeks and months and years and eventually, our lives, so they should be worth it. For me, it’s walking down the street after dealing with some bureaucratic nonsense and seeing a wall of blue straight ahead—and realising it’s the Atlantic Ocean! It’s strolling along the beach on my way to the supermarket and seeing a girl skateboarding down the main street with a surfboard under her arm. It’s talking to people from all over the world on any given day, knowing something about this place brought us all together.
I love the path I’m on; I am constantly surprising myself on this journey with how much I’m learning—like when I have a deep conversation with someone in Portuguese and I think, ‘Wow, that just happened!’, or when I finally figure out which bus to take without asking every single person I see on the road—so I hope you keep following my travels through my photos and stories. And if you ever think I’m slipping in my portrayal of this journey, I hope you call me out on it.
Located in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, Manaus is home to 2.5 million people and spreads out over 11,000 km² along the banks of the Rio Negro. It is a grey oasis that only hints at the great jungle that surrounds it, lulling us with its oppressive heat into forgetting where we are, offering no respite from the giant, hot sun, unapologetic for obscuring nature with its tall buildings and cracked asphalt, still clinging on to the remnants of the rubber boom that built the city amidst the thick rainforest in the late XIX century. / Ubicada en el medio del Amazonas, Manaus tiene 2.5 millones de habitantes y se extiende más de 11,000 km² sobre las orillas del Río Negro. Es un oasis gris que sólo insinúa estar rodeado por la gran selva, arruyándonos con el calor opresivo para que olvidemos dónde estamos, sin ofrecernos un respiro del enorme sol, sin arrepentimientos por obstruir la naturaleza con sus edificios altos y asfalto quebrantado, afferándose a los restos de la bonanza del caucho que construyó la ciudad en medio de la selva a finales del siglo XIX.
Cemitério São João
There are over 80,000 bodies buried in the Sao Joao Cemetery in Manaus which was built in 1891. The graves are separated–the Jews on one side and Catholics and Christians in the other, larger, area. These photographs were taken on the Day of the Dead, on November 2 of 2015, when people visit cemeteries, bring flowers, and light candles for the dead. / El Cementerio São João de Manaus, construido en 1891, tiene más de 80,000 cuerpos sepultados. Las tumbas están separadas–los judíos a un lado y los católicos y cristianos en la otra sección, que es más grande. Tomé estas fotografías el 2 de noviembre de 2015, el Día de los Muertos. Esta fecha es conmemorada con visitas a los cementerios, donde las personas llevan flores y prenden velas para quienes ya no están.
Located in the Heliodoro Balbi plaza, construction on the Provincial Palace was finished in 1874. It served as a governmental house, a police station, a school, and a public library before being turned into a museum in 2009. / Ubicado en la plaza Heliodoro Balbi, la construcción del Palacete Provincial fue terminado en 1874. Sirvió de casa gubernamental, estación de la policía, un colegio, y biblioteca pública antes de ser reformado como museo en 2009.
Palácio Rio Negro & Parque Jeferson Peres
Built in the early XX Century, the Rio Negro Palace was originally a private residence during the rubber boom in the Amazon. It was then turned into the governor’s residence, and eventually opened as a cultural centre in 1997. / Construido a principios del siglo XX, el Palacio Río Negro fue originalmente una residencia privada durante la bonanza del caucho en el Amazonas. Después fue convertido en la residencia del governador, antes de ser convertido en un centro cultural en 1997.
My favourite thing in the city, apart from it’s market place, is the Amazonas Opera House. Finished in 1896, it is an imposing structure; its pink exterior is capped by a Brazilian flag dome, built entirely with individual, hand-placed stones brought from Europe. / Lo que más me gusta de Manaus, además de su plaza de mercado, es el Teatro Amazonas. Esta imponente estructura fue terminada en 1896, y aún deslumbra con su fachada rosada y su domo, que brilla con los colores de la bandera del Brasil y está hecho completamente de piedras traidas de Europa y puestas a mano.
Rio Negro & Praia da Lua
The Rio Negro (Black River) starts its course in Colombia, where it’s known as the Guania River. After a short run through Venezuela, it dips into Brazil and through the state of Amazonas, travelling East, parallel to the Amazon, eventually turning into the Solimoes River; the place where they join is known as the meeting of the waters, a spectacular natural occurance where the different waters come together without mixing.
Praia da Lua (Moon Beach), is one of the most popular for swimming on the white beaches of the largest black river in the world.
El río Negro nace en Colombia, donde es conocido como el río Guanía. Después de recorrer un tramo corto por Venezuela, baja al estado de Amazonas en Brasil, donde corre hacia el oriente, paralelo al Amazonas, y finalmente se convierte en el río Solimoes. El lugar donde se juntan estos ríos es conocido como el ‘encuentro de las aguas’, una espectacular ocurrencia natural donde las aguas se juntan sin mezclarse.
La Playa de la Luna es una de las más populares para nadar en las orillas de arena blanca del río de aguas negras más grande del mundo.
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 instict 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, specially 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 getting onboard 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 had to crawl under the sleeping passengers just to get out of my hammock. There are so many people, every movement triggers a tremour 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 past 7 am, they haven’t been turned 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 disembarked. 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 made 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 Belem 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 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 aboard the Amazon Star. To deal with this new information, I drink beer.
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 over night.
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 over night 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 Belem 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.
Presidente Figueiredo is a small city of just over 30,000 people, located around 100 km north of Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas. It is surrounded by tropical waterfalls that spring from deep within the jungle and are perfect to cool down the hot days of the Amazon rainforest. / Ubicada a unos 100 km al norte de Manaus, la capital del estado de Amazonas, Presidente Figueiredo es una pequeña ciudad con un poco más de 30,000 habitantes rodeada por cascadas tropicales que brotan entre la selva y se prestan para refrescar los días calientes del Amazonas.
Espero que mi toallita para la cara de La Sirenita distraiga del resto de mi desorden; no tengo mucha privacidad donde me estoy quedando y el lugar para poner mis cosas es el suelo. Justo ahora estaba organizando mi equipaje lo mejor que pude, ordenándolo contra el pedacito de pared que decidí iba a ser mío, y empecé a pensar en cómo me siento cada vez que desempaco en un lugar nuevo, y en que sólo me siento en casa cuando realmente puedo desempacar. Preferiblemente en algún tipo de mueble–un estante o un casillero…¿pero el suelo? No se siente demasiado como estar en casa. Aunque después pensé que tener todas mis cosas ahí a plena vista para que las mire todo el que pase por la puerta de la casa me ha obligado a ser más ordenada que en los otros lugares donde me he quedado, donde he podido esconder mi desorden detrás de una puerta o cortina.
Mientras cierro mi mochila, me da un remordimiento por no tener fotos de todos los lugares donde me he quedado, los casilleros que he usado, los estantes, las camas, las hamacas. ¿Y por qué no tengo fotos? Creo que cada vez que pensé en hacerlo—cuando mis cosas habían explotado como una piñata—siempre estaba corriendo a algún lugar, seguramente ya iba tarde, y tomar una foto de mi desorden sólo iba a perpetuar esa realidad tan penosa. Entonces no lo hice.
Pero soy una documentalista y debería ser objetiva al documentar la realidad, la vida cotidiana, tal como la veo, y hasta encarar el lente de la cámara de vez en cuando. Entonces decidí que de ahora en adelante voy a tomarle fotos a todos los lugares donde me quede, con desorden y todo, porque ya perdí la oportunidad de tomarle foto a unos lugares buenísimos: la terraza con las hamacas y el comedor con la mejor vista de Manaus; mi cuarto privado y las mesas y sillas hechas a mano en madera pesada en ese corredor largo en Presidente Figueiredo; el baño espacioso con espejo con luces como de camerino y los azulejos portugueses en el corredor del piso de abajo en Belém…
Ahora estoy en Barreirinhas, un pueblo naranja y empolvado, construido todo en ladrillo sobre la suave arena blanca que a duras penas es contenida por el peso de las casas; se ven las dunas tratando de reclamar su territorio y volver a entrar a la ciudad, apilándose contra los muros y en las alcantarillas, trepándose por las aceras, dándoles poca oportunidad a las palmas de coco y los árboles de caju para crecer. Estoy aquí sentada en la terraza, mirando al pueblo al frente y mis cosas detrás, queriendo estar más cerca al agua, queriendo mover mi desorden a otro lugar.
Vine aquí a Barreirinhas porque es una de las entradas al parque Nacional Lençois Maranhenses: 155,000 hectáreas de dunas que rodean el río Preguiças (río de la Pereza), el cual culebrea hacia el Atlántico y desemboca en las orillas de Atins, un pueblo de pescadores a unas horas de camino en barco o 4×4. Las lluvias fuertes de la región llenan los espacios entre las dunas, creando lagunas de agua dulce y paisajes alucinantes. Pero lo que pasa es lo siguiente: no ha llovido y las lagunas están secas.
Había decidido ir a Atins y no a las dunas en vez de sentarme aquí soñando con el agua, o un estante o un casillero; pero mi esperanza de que me llevaran los pescadores resultó no ser más que un sueño, ya que es prohibido que lleven pasajeros. Entonces me quedaré aquí, viendo los árboles moverse con el viento que trae arena blanca a la casa, y sufrir cada vez que uno de los gatos mata a otra lagartija o sapo, que parece ser lo único que hacen todo el día.
Aunque los Lençois están de primeros en mi lista de cosas para ver en Brasil, creo que me tocará esperar hasta el año entrante cuando vuelva a subir por la costa para ver las lagunas llenas, con sus colores intensos, brillando entre las dunas. Por ahora me contento con hacer una siesta en mi hamaca y soñar con el mar, que está cada vez más cerca.
I hope my Little Mermaid facecloth will detract attention from the rest of my mess; I don’t have much privacy and the place for my stuff is, well, the floor. Just now, as I was trying to tidy up my things as neatly as I could against the wall I’ve claimed as my own, I started thinking about how I feel when I’m unpacking at a new place, and how I feel most at home when I can properly unpack. Preferably on a shelf, but a locker works…the floor? Not too homey. Then I thought about how having my stuff on display for everyone who passes through the front door to see has at least made me more organised than in other places I’ve stayed at, where I’ve been able to hide my clutter, my messy little secret, behind a closed door or curtain.
As I closed up my bag, I wished I had photos of all the rooms I’ve been in, the lockers I’ve used, the shelves, the beds, the hammocks. And why didn’t I have photos? I think every time I thought about doing it–when my things had exploded out of my bag like a piñata–I was rushing off somewhere, probably already a few minutes late, and snapping a shot of my mess was only going to perpetuate this embarrassing reality. So I didn’t.
But I’m a documentalist and I should be objective about documenting reality, daily life, as I see it and maybe put the lens back on myself, sometimes. I’ve decided that from now on, I’m going to photograph all the places I stay in, mess and all, because I’ve already missed out on some great ones: the terrace with the hammocks and the dining room with the best view of Manaus; my private room and the heavy handmade wooden chairs and tables in the long white corridor in Presidente Figueiredo; that spacious bathroom with a back-lit dressing room style mirror and the beautiful Portuguese tiles on the walls of the downstairs hallway in Belém…
Now I’m in Barreirinhas, a dusty orange town built with bricks on white, powdery sand, the weight of the houses barely containing the dunes that try to reclaim their territory by sneaking back into the city, lumping against walls and in gutters, climbing onto sidewalks, leaving little opportunity for grass, coconut and caju nut (cashew) trees to grow. I’m here, sitting on the verandah, looking out at the town in front of me and all my things behind me, wishing I was closer to the water, wanting to move my mess elsewhere.
I came here because Barreirinhas is one of the gateways into the Lençois Maranhenses National Park: 155,000 hectares of sand dunes surrounding the Preguiças River, which snakes out into the Atlantic at the shores of Atins, a small fishing village a few hours away by boat or 4×4. The heavy rains fill the spaces between the dunes, forming freshwater lagoons, making for hallucinating landscapes. But here’s the thing: it hasn’t rained and the lagoons are dry.
So rather than sitting here dreaming of the water, of a shelf or locker, I’ve decided to go to Atins rather than the dunes; I guess it’s inevitable that I would choose the beach over the desert. I should be there for about a week, provided I can find an internet connection for work; otherwise, I’ll be back here in just a couple of days.
Although the Lençois was at the top of my ‘to see’ list in Brazil, I might just have to wait until next year when I come back up the coast to see the lagoons displaying their intense colours amidst the sand. For now, I’m pretty happy with the thought of hanging up my hammock near the ocean, where I can hear the waves and smell the salt, even if it means I have to leave all my things on the sand.