Manaus and the jungle: We had left Porto Velho on a bus. This chapter starts with our arrival at a boat landing on the Amazon and tells our story from Manaus and a trip into the jungle fishing flesh-eating piranhas.
Thursday 15.10.1987, Manaus
At long last we arrived at the very Amazon River and the last ferry landing. Strangely there are no proper quays on any of these places – the road just continues right into the river and the ferry merely drives right onto the river bank.
On this ferry landing there was a more than tiny cluster of houses, cafes and shops. Slum. The pigs were messing around in the dirt, the children were playing between the shacks and we took pictures.
The passage over to Manaus took half an hour and we passed the famous water division where Rio Negros’ blue-black water meets the brown coloured Solimões. What is fascinating is that the very marked division of colours keeps like that over a distance of 6 kilometres.
From the quite small Rodoviària in Manaus we managed to get into the city centre and went hotel hunting. The prices are higher than we are used to, but we found:
- Pensao Sulista, Rua Joaquim Nabuco, 347. Simple room with shower and a patio outside. Clean and quiet with laundry options. 400 Cz$ (6.6 USD). Map.
Booking a jungle trip
Jungle trips seem to be the really big thing in Manaus. Even before checking into our pension and while we were there, we were approached by people promoting their jungle trips. On a number of places throughout town we noticed agents of such trips. Most of the trips seem to cost around 100 USD for an excursion of three days and two nights. They all depart for roughly the same area, offering the same activities.
We decided to join Luis, a guide who came up to us in our hotel. Later that evening we were told that he was very reliable. We agreed that for the price 90 dollars we would get a three day, two night arrangement with boat, bus, foot walk, crocodile photo safari, piranha fishing, hammock accommodation, and more. It was an all-inclusive deal: food, transportation etc.
Luis found a money exchanger for us. We were given a rate of 65 Cz$ to a dollar US.
We had a cheap, good and big lunch. At the restaurant we met a guy who spoke some English. We agreed to go to a samba club tonight. We never made it to the club but remained at our hotel for the length of the evening drinking beer – apart for Bo unfortunately. She doesn’t like beer and had to settle with and sucos.
Paulo was from Bahia, had a past a professional football player for Santos, now job hunting in Manaus. He didn’t like it here in town and returns home this night already after only four days in Manaus. Therefore no samba for us. But it was a nice and wet evening.
Bo had the opportunity to practice her Spanish (excellent) and I understood a good part when an English-speaking jungle guide at the hostel came dragging with his Uruguayan mother. Paulo too spoke some Spanish.
There was no poste restante mail for us at the post office, unfortunately.
Friday 16.10.1987, Manaus
Today we dropped by the Northern-Man-Museum, an interesting anthropological place.
We also checked out flight rates to Iquitos, Peru at Varig/Cruzeiro. Our handbook operates with prices of 70 USD whereas we now (like in Rio) were told that cost would be upwards to 230 USD. The problem is also that Peru demands an exit ticket before letting us into the country, and Brazil even levies a 25 % tax on all flights to foreign countries.
Anyway we reserved seats on the Thursday flight to Tabatinga (5500 Cz$ (92 USD)) and the Saturday flight onwards to Iquitos (65 USD) with an open return ticket to Tabatinga (65 USD). This solution proved most cost-effective. Luckily we don’t have to pay until Wednesday. The return ticket may be used on all IATA airlines so we’ll get the money back somehow later. The tickets cost us around 220 USD.
Saturday 17.10.1987 to Monday 19.10.1987, The Amazon jungle
The jungle is beckoning us. The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rain forest would receive two Norwegian visitors.
Together with Luis and his mistress (his wife and two children stayed at home), Bo and I, two Americans and a German took off to the market in Manaus early in the morning. It was a fascinating place which we wanted to return to later. Down by the river there were a number of boats presumably transporting passengers to different places on the rivers around Manaus. We boarded one of the boats together with some locals.
We departed eastwards in the direction of the separation of waters, turned around a bend and headed up the Solimões River to Lago da Janoaca. It was exciting to be on that boat watching the smaller rivers and the jungle all around. We had seemingly arrived in the dry season as the river was 4-6 metres below its usual level. The tree roots were hanging over the river banks.
The boat trip took 7-8 hours at least, a bit boring at the end, and we tried to kill some time by relaxing in the hammocks, drink (also beer) and sunbathe. The others in the group turned out to be really nice.
In the end we arrived at a cabin floating on some huge logs of timber close to land. Along the way we had seen a few riverboats with wooden or straw huts on, and some that would be standing on small hills further up on the river bank.
We took our entire luggage, including hammocks to each of us (rede in Portuguese) into the house and commenced fishing piranhas. We had luck fishing but unfortunately no piranhas. Luis splashed around in the water with a stick to draw the attention of the piranhas. It was with a strange feeling that we later dipped a casserole into the water to wash ourselves in.
We were served an excellent dinner as the darkness fell upon us. It is amazing how fast it gets dark in the tropics.
Right next to us there was another houseboat. When it had become pitch dark we experienced a veritable Disco Amazonas. They put on a number of multi-coloured lights and the music thundered across the jungle completely strangling the peace and “natural” music from animals and birds and insects that every jungle is so full of. The show was apparently for the sake of us – a completely insane idea.
Later we took off on another smaller boat across the lagoon to another place. On the way we noticed a sharp flash of light as a meteor or comet crossed the sky.
At our final destination we hung our hammocks up in a shed without walls. The house for the locals was situated nearby. We were struck by the large number of children. At this place we avoided the loud music and were able to relax with the song from the selva. It was a lovely feeling just being here.
At two in the night we were awakened. The time had come to go crocodile hunting. I and Eric from the US went off in one canoe with two locals. (By the way, no locals we met had native Indian appearances.) The others climbed into another canoe. It was very exciting in the beginning. Several places the eyes of the crocodiles lit up when the flashlight of the old man with a rifle pointed it in their direction. We did not get closer than five metres. A number of fish were jumping nearby making the Dixie jump in his seat.
As time passed it became kind of boring. Nothing happened and the butt got quite sore from sitting on the narrow stick in the slightly leaking and unsteady canoe.
The other party had managed to harpoon a 70 cm long crocodile and had enjoyed a very good time according to Bo. We were later told that larger crocs are no longer found in these areas, probably because of hunting too many of them.
After sleeping very well in the large hammock we were awakened as early as five in the morning. We were off to visit a large colony of birds. The white birds and their confused and thin chicks were quite interesting to watch.
Then we went on the fateful fishing trip. I and Bo came alone in a motorised canoe with a local. For nearly four hours we hummed around the river into a number of bays without catching more than a single fish each. On the other hand we dropped by a place where a couple of guys were showing off a giant fish (pirarucu) of two metres and almost 100 kilos. It was enormous but reportedly not one of the biggest.
Unfortunately the fishing trip caused too much sun for Bo and she suffered the same consequence as in Cuiabá – sunstroke. The rest of the jungle trip was to her very little pleasant. Diarrhoea, vomit, dizziness, and exhaustion were changing troubles for her. Sad.
For dinner we were served a number of different fish. The piranha tasted very well, and so did the crocodile meat.
Later we took off to another cabin and tied our hammocks up inside the cabin itself. Bo was too weak to do anything so we others split into two groups and joined each our armed (rifle) guide. I carried a machete in my back pocket. The German Kay joined me. In pitch darkness and with two flashlights we went in among the plants, trees and sounds. The forest was very dense but we went mostly on good paths.
The dry season had made the ground easy to walk on, with a lot of dried leaves and small sticks. Our guide seemed very used to being in the jungle and kept explaining various things in Portuguese as we went deeper and deeper. In two hours we had not seen a single animal or bird, and became quite disappointed. The Americans later told us they had seen monkeys and shot a bird.
Despite that it was both exciting and fascinating to stop, turn off the flashlights and just listen to the sounds of the jungle. The local would often make a sudden stop and aim the flashlight into the bushes as if he had seen or heard something. It was a pity we were unable to communicate properly. I understood that he was not watching for animals after all.
This night only Don joined the crocodile hunt. The rest of us were too tired. The knot on Eric’s hammock untied twice and he fell to the floor with a bang. He wasn’t harmed though.
Monday, and our last day, started with baboon screams on the other side of the river. Some of us took off into the forest where the American the previous night had come across monkeys. We heard them, but upon approaching them they scattered away unseen for us.
We left the cabin on yet a boat and damned the uncomfortable thwarts. Luckily we made land after not too long and started a jungle march of three to four hours. We ended up on the main road from where we took a passing bus to the ferry landing on the Amazon and continued home from there.
The trip was well worth the money. In such a short time, and so near the large city and the civilisation one cannot expect very much. We were left with a feeling of having experienced the mysticism of the jungle and the daily life of its inhabitants in a decent way. There were many experiences.
Luis was a good guide, it was only a pity we did not share the same language. He cared well for Bo especially and the rest of us as well. His tour was alright, but obviously not fixed – for instance where we would sleep. He showed on the other hand no insecurity to us.
The jungle people in their poor houses look healthy and quite content with the life they live. They have radios and cassette recorders.
Tuesday 20.10.1987, Manaus
We didn’t do much today.
We went to see the Amazon Theatre. It was a grand building erected by the immensely rich rubber barons at the end of the 1800s. It is need of restoration, currently underway as well. There is an impressive banquet hall and a concert hall with balconies on four storeys where they used to import opera stars from Europe to entertain the plutocracy. The entire building was by the way built in Europe.
Bo was still ill and we couldn’t do much about it. We dropped by a pharmacy and bought some anti-diarrhoea and iron pills. She is quite anaemic.
I walked alone in the city looking for camera lenses. My thought was to by a new 70-210 mm lens because Manaus is a tax-free zone. (My previous lens was stolen in Rio.)
Wednesday 21.10.1987, Manaus
Bo is feeling a lot better and does not have the facial expression of paleness and apathy any more. We got up early and went down to the market by the river, exotic.
Then we had breakfast and exchanged some money. We went over to the travel agency and paid for our flight to Tabatinga tomorrow and onwards to Iquitos tomorrow. The necessary open-date return-flight from Iquitos to Tabatinga we figured we could spend at home on a later occasion, within a year.
We picked up mail at the post office in the centre. I received a letter from my family and Bo from a friend. The joy was high not least because we yesterday and on last Thursday had received negative answers from two post offices. The central office is probably the best and most important for poste restante (general delivery), contrary to what our guidebook states.
This evening we went to a churrascaria, a kind of steakhouse with a lot – an incredible amount – of food. 12-13 courses and even more meat dishes on skewers were continuously being offered at the table. It was fascinating and expensive. It cost us a thousand cruzeidos altogether! (17 dollars).
We have yesterday and today had a lot of laundry and we even washed our bags and running shoes. We are now going to bed as it is early up in the morning for our last stop in Brazil – Tabatinga.
Letter to my family
Manaus, Wednesday 21st of October 1987
Here I’m back again. We came here last Thursday but so much has happened in between that I found it best to wait with my letter writing. To be true, a long time has passed since you heard from us and this time it is a very long letter.
The bus trip here to Manaus was a great experience, with a lot of action and excitement. First we were assaulted by wide Amazon tribes with arrow heads dipped in curare poison. Later the bus rolled over into the river and two children were eaten by crocodiles. I only lost one of my little toes (on the left foot). My girlfriend unfortunately lost her nose when a drunken man wanted a souvenir from Norway and picked up his knife.
Well, well, it’s not as bad as that. But we did get a flat tire yesterday; we drove through very dense jungle seemingly without life for mile after mile. Besides the standard of the road was on long stretches pretty nerve wrecking as the bus slid in the mud, bounced sideways forward and almost rolled over, during a ride the bus driver apparently was aiming at setting a new speed record. The sweat and dirt had penetrated every single little thread of cloth when we finally were able to check into the hotel here in Manaus. A fine trip!
But then we went on a real jungle trip with crocodile hunting, piranha fishing and a hike through impenetrable jungle both in pitch darkness and in the heat of the sun.
It started like this: The very day we arrived in Manaus a man popped up outside our door. He was a jungle guide and wanted to take us on a trip. We found that his program, his knowledge and the price was highly competitive in the market of tour operators here in town. Therefore we jumped into a small passenger boat two days later and went up the Amazon River.
The tour lasted three days and two nights. We stayed the nights with the locals in hammocks and slept very well. In that way we got closer to the natives and their way of living. (Please do bear in mind that we did not get to see Red Indians. We have hardly seen any in Brazil at all.)
The first evening, after a long day on the Amazon and small tributary rivers, watching house boats, wooden or straw huts, in the edge of the jungle, we went about fishing piranhas. You know the meat eating fish. We did not have any luck, unfortunately.
Later that evening we went crocodile hunting in canoes and with torches. There were many croc eyes staring at us. Not even this time I was lucky, but my girlfriend was in a canoe and they managed to harpoon a crocodile which in death cramps shrugged between her legs after they had pulled it into the canoe.
The next day we were served both croc meat and piranha meat for lunch. Both tasted absolutely excellent. In the morning, during a long fishing trip, my girlfriend was again hit by sunstroke. The rest of the trip almost turned into a nightmare for her. Diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea changed in harassing her well-being. Now, two days after returning to Manaus, she is finally back (almost) in her good, old shape.
The same evening we others (two yanks and a German) went into the jungle in pitch-dark with flashlights. I had a machete in my back-pocket. It was thrilling to cut the light and let the sounds and smells engulf us.
The last day we walked for three hours or more through the jungle on various paths till we found a road where we took a bus back to Manaus.
It was fun to experience some of the Amazon jungle, even though we did not go far and long enough to experience all the animals living there. It was well worth the 600 NOK the trip cost us.
Another, rather expensive, treat is our flight tomorrow. Then we are going to fly to the border between Brazil, Columbia and Peru before moving on to Iquitos, Peru on Saturday. The flights cost us more than 200 dollars, considerably more than our guidebook had stated. On the other hand, we do not like to sit 10-15 days on a slow, little river steamer. It is possible we will go by boat when we get to Peru, if my girlfriend has regained her strength and I still want to. We’ve already had a whole day on the Amazon, and slept in a hammock. I will probably buy me one to bring home. They are fantastic to lie in, slumbering or sleeping.
Manaus is a pretty interesting town with several pedestrian streets. The entire town is a tax-free zone. Therefore I bought a new lens to my camera today. It cost me about 250 dollars and is identical to the one I had. That one was by the way stolen from me in Rio.
What happened was that we entered a city bus. The entrance is at the back of the bus and there is a ticket-seller and a turnstile we have to pass. Three others, apparently anonymous and ordinary people, two men and a woman, entered at the same stop as we did. One of the men was fumbling with his money at the turnstile and the woman sat down at the back. Later when we had passed the turnstile and sat down in the bus we noticed that there was a knife cut in the bottom of my shoulder bag, but not cutting through the extra foam rubber I had put as protection on the inside.
Thereafter the woman had probably managed to open up the top zipper from behind (opposite side from the handle), and carefully pulled out the large zoom. All the time I kept my bag tight under my arm pit with the one forearm along the side of the bag. But all the same…
The thieves let themselves quietly off the bus, while we went to the policy and a few days later received a receipt for the insurance company. To make up the status: the lens costs more than 400 dollars in Norway. Here I paid 250 for it. Therefore there is a net profit for it upon returning home. Nothing is so bad as not to be good for something. But I was furious, frustrated and resentful afterwards. Luckily I will now be able to take pictures on the rest of the trip as before.
Today we actually met a British who had absolutely everything stolen from him, while asleep. Crime is worst in Rio, but also other places in Brazil demand attention. Unfortunately it doesn’t help to be just cautious and prepared. The thieves here are so professional that you need a good portion of luck to avoid difficulties. The police are not better. Corruption in Brazil is so bad that even the Seaman’s Church in Rio has a budget post for bribes.
Alright, this will be the last paper I tear off. If you now complain about the length of the letter, there will only be short ones from now on. And only for Christmas. It’s been long since you heard from me so that explains the length. I hope it will not take so long before I again send you some words.
Thanks for your letter. It took a week to get here, so it was just barely we didn’t leave without hearing news from home. By the way we read fairly up-to-date Norwegian papers on the Consulate General in Rio.
The next letter you can send to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We will be there in 2-3 weeks, I should think. After that it is Lima in Peru. Take good care of yourselves and say hello to relatives and friends.
The next chapter: A Colombian sidestep: Moving west on the Amazon we made a quick trip into Colombia.