Adventure Update #2: I’m On a Boat!

Posted by on July 13, 2013

For our adventure, the road from Manaus to Porto Velho is actually a 5-day boat journey. I will add to this post throughout the voyage, and publish it next time I am online.

Day 1 (Tue 9th):

The majority of today was actually spent on land, mooching around Manaus and stocking up heavily on snacks for the boat (despite the fact meals will be provided within our ticket price). We got back to the boat in the mid-afternoon and promptly set about gaffing and demolishing a shocking portion of our snack supplies (which certainly will not last the full five days). We were very impressed to see how crowded things had become – we had stayed on the boat Monday night, when there were perhaps 10-12 hammocks at the most; we left the Port of Manaus a few hours ago at 9pm, and as I peer out of my hammock now I can see easily 80 of them onboard, probably more. It’s nearly midnight now as I write, so it’s time for me to settle into my hammock, enjoy the cool breeze rolling through, and get some sleep. Boa noite! (Side note: this is only the second place I’ve slept in nearly 11 months where I don’t need a mosquito net, and it’s fantastic!)

Day 2 (Wed 10th):

It’s nearly a week since I left school, but apparently some of the old habits die hard: I’m still naturally waking up well before 6am! That unpleasantness aside, today was otherwise quite rewarding, relaxing and rather interesting. This morning I managed to score my first proper shower since Easter* which was a fantastic experience, and the vast majority of the remainder of the day was spent liming in my hammock, with the brief interludes detailed below.

(* Don’t worry, I have been washing, but I haven’t had a chance to stand under a proper shower; our arrangement in Sand Creek was a bucket of water with a cup to pour it over yourself.)

Today was the first day of meals being provided onboard the boat, and I must say I am impressed! The Internet reviews I read when researching this trip had me prepared for some pretty sub-standard meals – hence our vast snack reserves – but either the reviewers are hard to please (who’d have thought it?) or we somehow lucked on the best boat floating out of Manaus! Breakfast, granted, was a meager offering of crackers with a cup of coffee, but lunch turned out to be a hot tinfoil dish of food, delivered directly to my hammock – what could be better? The meal included chow mein, rice, beans, salad and stewed beef. The portion was a little smaller than I’m used to, but the food itself was significantly better than most of the food prepared in our kitchen back in Sand Creek! The portion size turned out not to be a problem: our fellow travellers, Rachael and Gemma, are not big eaters, meaning Harry and I both get roughly one and a half servings from each meal! (This was good, considering how much we underestimated how fast we’d get through our snack supplies.)

After the first unexpectedly good meal, we had another surprise of a rather different nature: shortly before 3pm Harry and I decided to head to the top deck to make a dent in our unsightly t-shirt tans. From the top of the boat we had a good vantage point to see a speedboat pull alongside our small ferry and watch five Políciar Militar officers climb on, two of whom were clutching large shotguns (in addition to the standard-issue handguns strapped to the thigh of every police officer in Brazil).

We were ordered downstairs and back to the hammocks, the boat was pulled to the bank, and more officers climbed aboard; four more that I counted, but by this point I was doing a good job of staying in my hammock keeping my head down. The officers began a very thorough search of the cargo and all passengers’ luggage, and when I say “thorough”, I mean that these guys mightn’t have found Mt Everest from base camp. One of my bags was looked at as opposed to in; the other was skipped entirely.

Whilst this was going on, we scoured Gemma’s phrasebook for some useful phrases. We turned up some such as “it wasn’t me”, “please help me”, “I like your necklace”, “I need a miracle”, “the watch is fast” and “I like mango”, but ultimately none were used.

After about 90 minutes of delay the officers left, our boat continued course and all the passengers carried on as if nothing had happened. No reason was given for the inspection, or more accurately: no reason was given that we could understand – our Portuguese isn’t too sharp!

Dinner was another surprisingly substantial meal, comprising roast chicken, more rice, more chow mein and a scattering of vegetables.

As I write this, the four of us have just retired to our hammocks after a thrilling few rounds of the card game “Mushroom”. Two days down and so far, so good!

Day 3 (Thu 11th):

A surprising milestone met me this morning: one month from today I will fly home. Wow. One month and two days from now I will arrive at home. More wow.

There was a second surprise waiting for me this morning as well: a giant hole in my hammock! It had torn previously in Sand Creek, was patched by someone in the village, and at some point in the night apparently decided to throw in the towel for the last time. I should (hopefully) be able to make it last until I’m off the boat, but after that I think it’s the end of the road for the hammock that has served me so well for so long! A moment of silence, please, for our fallen comrade.

The rest of today was pretty similar to yesterday (although sans police visit), so I’ll cover it quickly: plenty of relaxing in my hammock, good food, good company, and time spent sunning myself on the top deck as we floated lazily down the Rio Madeira. The evening included the well-established cornerstones of snacking and gaffing, but with card games replaced tonight by LC-literature-time.

Side story: for the new addition of LC-literature-time, we decided that popcorn was required. I went to the bar to buy a bag, and immediately experienced another memorable collision with the language barrier. I learned a small amount of Portuguese before travelling, but sadly “popcorn” was not in my repertoire. After “do you have popcorn?” and a slower repetition of just “popcorn?” failed, I scanned the back of the bar to see if there was some I could point to. No. Okay, no problem. I checked to see if any nearby patrons had a bag I could gesture towards. No. Oh dear. After repeating the word “popcorn” a few more times I resorted to miming the shape of the bag, which surprisingly worked! Next hurdle: how much is it? I had this one covered – I know that “quantos?” is Portuguese for “how much?” Having sensed my ineptitude with the lingo, the barman showed me the price on his fingers, a routine I am now familiar with in Brazil. The final challenge was not for me but for the barman: after various gestures towards his watch and streams of rapid Portuguese that might as well have been Swahili, he conducted the message that I should come back in a few minutes. I returned to the other vols who asked me how much the popcorn was, and I found myself admitting that I had no idea; I was so amused by the exchange between the barman and I that I had completely forgotten to count the price from his fingers. I registered that less than all ten had gone up; that was enough for me! You’ll be pleased to hear that the popcorn was delicious, so this side story had a happy ending, as did the story featured in LC-literature-time.

Day 4 (Fri 12th):

Another standard day, really, of decent food, chatting, liming in hammocks, reading, gazing over the water… you’d think I’d be bored by now, but you’d be wrong: I’m still loving the chance to chill out with not a single worry on my mind!

That said, I awoke to an odd sound this morning, and I took me a moment to place it. Was it one of the passengers? Some wildlife, perhaps? Nope. It was quiet. The boat’s engine has been running continually, day and night, since we left the port on Tuesday. It’s a bit like the sound you’d get inside an airplane, but loud enough that everything must be said with a slightly raised voice. However, for one reason or another, the engine was shut down for about half an hour around 1am this morning. Why was I awake at 1am? I wasn’t; the difference in noise was enough to wake me up!

The day also included a startling false-alarm when we thought we’d arrived at Porto Velho at 7 at night, instead of the following afternoon as planned. This was caused in part by the glow of city lights we saw approaching on the bank, but mostly by an old Brazilian lady patting frantically at the girls and telling them “Porto Velho! Porto Velho!”. A quick check of my GPS told us that we were actually stopping at Humaitá to load/offload goods, and Porto Velho was waiting for us roughly 100 miles further downstream. During the stop in Humaitá Harry and I went on land briefly in search of food (successful), and I may have slightly launched Rachael’s water bottle overboard and into the river in what I believed was a completely justifiable, logical and entirely fair manoeuvre (but she may disagree with me here).

In other news, I have accidentally broken the universe. Sorry. How have I broken it? I have managed to make a hammock uncomfortable, which is more of a fundamental rule-breaker than that faster-than-light-neutrino deal we all saw in the news a while ago. Because of the rapidly widening hole in the middle of my hammock (see above) I am forced to adopt increasingly awkward positions to actually use it, and these have started to make the leap from awkward to genuinely uncomfortable. So, if you happen to notice the moon moving across the sky a little too fast, or you multiple two by two and somehow derive an answer of “Paris”, it’s probably because I broke the universe. Again, sorry about that.

Day 5 (Sat 13th):

The universe may not be completely broken after all! My rapidly deteriorating hammock is several steps down from comfy now, but it can be slept in!

We left Humaitá some time after I fell asleep last night, and as I write this at a little before 11am we have quite a left until we reach Porto Velho. This is good for two reasons: we might arrive in daylight, making finding our bus easier, and more importantly it means we will be on the boat for lunch! (In fact as I wrote the last sentence the plastic spoons were handed out, meaning lunch should be about 10 minutes away!)

Update: we did get lunch, and dinner as well! The boat has just docked in Porto Velho at 9pm, making a total of 96 hours spent onboard. The four of us must now locate the bus station, buy tickets for this evening, and then say our farewells to each other as our journeys branch off into very different paths.

So there you have it, a needlessly detailed account of our voyage along the Rio Madeira (“Rio” = “river”, FYI). If you got the impression that I did a lot of slothing around and relaxing while I was on the boat, then you’d be exactly right: I have very much enjoyed liming in my hammock for nigh-on five days straight. We had plenty of hammock-time in Sand Creek, but there was always a small voice somewhere in the grey matter reminding me that I should probably be doing some marking or lesson planning… relaxing without that voice has been bliss! I’d also like to offer a small defence to my lethargic ways: as I’m sure any teacher will tell you – volunteer or non, abroad or back home – after the mayhem that is the last few weeks of term, a chilled out holiday is a very well-deserved reward!

I did a lot of my research for The Adventure from other travel blogs, so if anyone else is considering this journey I would definitely recommend it as an interesting and affordable way to get from Manaus to Porto Velho (where you can find good links to Peru, Bolivia and the western side of Brazil). If you follow us down the river, I offer this advice: haggle a little for your ticket with dealers outside the port (we found passengers who had paid R$30 more than us per ticket); get to the boat and set up your stuff the day before it leaves; aim to get your hammock at the front of the boat (the engine is at the back); take luxury snacks if you like, but you’ll survive without them (if you’re likely to bore of plain water, take some form of powdered drink mix); take something warm as the mornings and evenings can be sometimes chilly; and take earphones or earplugs – the engine runs 24/7!

As mentioned above our next move is to say goodbye to the Sawariwau vols (who are heading to Peru) and hop across the border into Bolivia, where we will be visiting La Paz, Copacabana and Uyuni, and mountain biking down the World’s Most Dangerous Road.

Thank you for reading, apologies for the very long blog post, and keep your eyes peeled for some far shorter posts coming soon!