“I’ve decided that I’m going to do it,” I announced to my roommates in Peru. “Do what?” Ben asked. “The boat trip down the Amazon. Definitely, definitely going to do it.” “Twelve hours ago you told me you were definitely, definitely going to fly,” Ben responded. “Well in twelve hours you can have another update, and we’ll see how I’m feeling,” I said grumpily.
Few decisions in my life have been more heavily debated than when I was trying to decide how I wanted to travel to Brazil. On one side of the argument, there was the fact that a month-long boat trip down the Amazon River would be undeniably cool. Adventure, a little bit of danger, beautiful scenery, seeing parts of the world that very few people ever see. When else would I have an opportunity like this?
On the other side of the argument, there was the danger, the facts that I would be traveling by myself (a blonde female). I didn’t speak the language; there was very little information available about this travel route because it was so far off the beaten path; it would likely be uncomfortable; I didn’t have any malaria prophylaxis medications; it wasn’t any cheaper than flying when I accounted for all the expenses; it involved travel through incredibly remote areas with no healthcare should anything go wrong and was generally regarded as a very bad idea for a solo traveler (especially a woman).
When it came right down to it, the argument could be summarized as “cool experience vs. common sense.” The weeks leading up to my departure, though, were filled with advice from everyone I knew. “Definitely do it,” my friend Amelia said. In her last year of medical school in New Zealand, Amelia was my hero and role model; her advice had some weight. “Don’t forget that Amelia’s crazy,” Rob said. “And I mean that in a good way, but she’s crazy.” That advice had some weight, too.
“This sounds like a disaster,” Ben said.
“I met some Brazilian guys when I was traveling in Argentina, and they told that they would never travel in the jungle by themselves,” Holly added.
“Well… what’s the worst that could happen?” I asked. “All my stuff gets stolen; that’s replaceable.”
“No,” Ben corrected me, the voice of reason. “You could be murdered or raped or kidnapped.”
When I talked to my host family, they thought it was a ridiculous idea.
“Katy, those boats are very dangerous,” the grandmother told me anxiously. “They rape women on those boats!”
“Oh, great,” I said. This is a perfect example of why I should not try to use sarcasm in foreign languages, because it simply does not translate well.
“No,” my host mother said, now thoroughly alarmed. “Rape is not good. Rape is bad.” I spent the next fifteen minutes listening to the two of them try to convince me that rape was not, in fact, a good thing, as I tried and failed to explain the concept of sarcasm.
“Well,” my host mother finally said, as we sipped our tea in the kitchen, “How long would this boat ride be? Two, three days?”
“Um…. total, with all the time for stops, it would be more like three or four weeks.”
“Four weeks?” she said, shaking her head. “Que viajera loca.” Crazy traveler.
I consulted one of my best friends from home, Ryan, via email. “I need you to help me make a bad decision,” I told him. “Talk me into this.” His email response was: “How many people have a life experience like that in their pocket… not many… no swimming or drowning allowed… its gonna be awesome. Have fun.”
The directors of the clinic where I worked were more encouraging. Sandy, one of my favorite people in the world and one of the people I respect most in life, thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. “You have to do it,” she said. “Think how wonderful that would be.”
When I relayed my safety concerns, she faltered a bit. “Well,” she said, clearly beginning to sense potential liability, “maybe you could get to the start of the river, and if it looks too dangerous, you can always come back and take a plane. You might meet some great people to travel with there.”
To me, it sounded like the perfect compromise: I didn’t have to feel like I was giving up a dream, and if the situation got sketchy, I had an out. Perfect. I bought a plane ticket to Lima and from there to Iquitos, the mouth of the Peruvian Amazon. I spent one night visiting my friend Geoff in Lima, who invited me to go out to dinner with a friend of his who had done the same journey. “They can probably reassure you,” Geoff said, apparently sensing my anxiety, and introducing me to his friend Dave. “It’s a fantastic trip,” Dave told me over Chinese food. “Really fantastic.”
“Don’t you have a good story about the border?” Geoff prompted him.
“Oh, yeah, that,” Dave said. “Make sure you lock your stuff up.”
“I have locks,” I said. “And I always keep my passport and some money on me, anyways.”
“No, to keep people from putting stuff in your bags,” Dave said. “It’s a drug route; they target tourists to stuff cocaine in your bags.”
“What?” I croaked, nearly choking on an eggroll.
“It’s fine, though,” Dave said. “We only had to talk to the police for a while. They knew we hadn’t done it, they let us go pretty quickly.”
“This probably isn’t making you feel any better, is it?” Dave’s girlfriend whispered to me.
Another obstacle was simply the lack of information about this trip. I knew the basics: fly to Iquitos, catch a one-day fast boat to the three-country border of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. From there, it was a longer boat ride (no one seemed sure if it was three days, or seven) to Manaus, smack in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. From there, I would take another long boat ride (again, the timeline was vague; I heard anything from two days to eight) to Belem, a town on the Atlantic coast. Then, a thirty-six hour bus ride to Salvador de Bahia, my final destination. No one seemed to be able to tell me which days the boats left the port cities or how long the journey was or how much any of it would cost. Everything I found on travel forums on the internet implied that it was safe. When I posted a thread asking if it was easy to make all the connections and find the right boats, the general response seemed to be, “Is it worth it if it’s easy?” Or, in true backpacker style, one person responded by saying, “If it were easy, everyone would do it, and then it would suck.”
Armed with padlocks and mosquito repellent, I left for Iquitos. The omens did not seem good: I had hurt my ankle only a week before and was sporting an ankle brace and a rather spectacular limp. From that point, I thought things could only improve. I ended up stranded in Iquitos for several days because there were no fast boats leaving for the border on the days I was trying to leave (“Oh yeah, that’ll happen,” Dave told me via email). I spent the days bumming around Iquitos, wishing I could walk a little better and wondering where all the tourists were because I had yet to meet any potential travelling companions.
The fast boat to the border, however, was full of traveling companions. There were two who were heading the same direction as me, a pair of Swedish guys named Johan and Viktor. Within five minutes of meeting them, I had decided that I would travel the length of the Amazon with them. In an effort to seem less desperate and /or creepy, I waited until we had arrived at the border twelve hours later and simply asked if they wanted to try to find a good hostel together, silently congratulating myself on my smoothness in finding travel buddies without coming off as a stalker.
The tri-country border was one of my favorite places. A little shady, yes. Hot, absolutely. But you could not beat it for interesting. On one side of the river was the Peruvian town of Santa Rosa, on the other side, the Brazilian town of Tabatinga, which blended smoothly into the Colombian town of Leticia. What a crazy world we make with our imaginary borders – in one half of a city, Colombian Pesos and on the other side, Brazilian Reals. It all seemed so tropical compared to the cold mountains of Peru – shacks with roofs made from palm leaves, exotic fruits sold on every corner, Spanish and Portuguese blended together as music blared from the speakers at the outdoor restaurant where we guzzled down pineapple juice. I paid for my dinner in Brazilian Reals and ended up with a handful of Colombian currency as change.
“We would be incredibly easy to rip off,” I whispered to Johan and Viktor as I accepted a handful of bills, with no idea what they were worth. “Anyone know what the exchange rate is for whatever the hell I’ve got in my hand?” We purchased our passages to Manaus in Reals, a currency that I had at least some familiarity. We followed the owner of our hostel to the docks, where he helped us purchase our fares. I was secretly delighted every time I heard someone speak in Portuguese: I was shocked to find that it sounded exactly the same as my language Podcasts that I had downloaded. I was tickled to death when I could occasionally understand something (although this usually consisted of “good night” or its simplistic equivalent).
We bought used hammocks and strung them on the barge the night before the boat’s departure. The boat had three levels: the lowest, where the motors were located, was the cheapest. It was packed with cargo (boxes and boxes of bananas), as well as people. The middle level, where we had staked out our place, was for people only – it was small, but relatively clean, and the breeze from the river kept the mosquitoes and heat at bay. Four days, three nights, on a barge full of cargo and a couple hundred people. I was becoming more and more excited – the possibility of spending days on a hammock floating down the Amazon river looked like it was actually about to happen.
When we returned to the boat the following day, it had been transformed. It was no longer a spacious barge with beautiful views of the Amazon; rather, it looked like some kind of county fair, with animals and people crowded in every corner. Our hammocks had been pushed together so that they were only inches apart, and there were people crowded in every available space. There had to be over two hundred hammocks hanging on our level of the boat. The smell was overwhelming – and this was at the start of the journey. “Okay,” I said, stunned and bewildered by the sheer number of people who had packed themselves into such a small area, “There has to be a way to make this work.”
This was how we met our next traveling companion, a Chilean girl named Carla-Paz who became the fourth member of our quartet. “It helps if you hang the hammocks higher up,” she said by way of introduction. She showed us how to hang our hammocks in levels – mine next to hers, closest to the floor. We tied the guys’ hammocks tighter, so that they hung directly above ours. I used my injured ankle as an excuse to sleep on the lower level, but in all honesty, I was certain I would break a bone if I tried to climb down from the upper level hammocks in the middle of the night. I could just picture being stuck on a boat for four days with a broken wrist after falling out of a hammock.
The crowded boat aside, the Amazon was spectacular. We passed huts on stilts, kids in tattered clothes who ran out and waved at us, fishermen in small dugout canoes who eyed us suspiciously. The Amazon passed by, our boat moving slowly but never pausing, only an expanse of muddy water separating us from the darkest of jungles. Carla-Paz, Johan, Viktor and I played cards on the upper deck, Portuguese music blasting, and watched the sunset every night. At times, I would forget that I was on a boat – until it shifted, or I happened to look out at the shore. At night, the lights from our boat seemed to be the only illumination as far as we could see; looking out the boat into the darkness was a degree of blackness that I had never seen before. We were surrounded by one of the largest expanses of wilderness left in the world. On the first night, there was a beautiful thunderstorm – the lightning lit up all the trees along the shore and the river. Our enthusiasm was only slightly tempered by the pouring rain that blew into the boat and soaked our bags.
There is always a less romantic description of any story, though. Sleeping with two hundred other people, none of whom can shower or have any privacy, is nothing short of disgusting. There is a significant difference between going a week without showering in the cold mountains of Peru and going a week without showering in the steamy Amazon. For starters, I could get away with it and still be reasonably hygienic in Peru. Not so in the Amazon. At the end of the journey, when I tried to exchange the disgusting twenty dollar bills that I had tucked in my bra for the duration of the boat ride, the man at the bank gave me a look that clearly said, `Are you kidding me?’ I had to find an iron and actually iron them out before anyone would accept them, and even then they smelled so horrible that I wasn’t sure the bank would want them.
The close proximity of the sleeping arrangements meant, for the next several days, that if I had to get up in the middle of the night to pee, I woke up a total of eight people: Carla-Paz to my left, a sweet Brazilian woman named Muna to my right, the Swedes directly above me, and four unknown Brazilians who had the misfortune to sleep within a two-person proximity to my weak bladder. Talk about a ripple effect. I tried to treat it as a sort of Travel Challenge – how long can I lay awake in the middle of the night trying to convince myself that I don’t actually have to pee? “You don’t have to pee,” I would tell myself. “You. Do. Not. Have. To. Pee.”
If the first day was spectacularly beautiful, the boredom set in on Day 2 – a sinking sensation of `this is pretty, but how many more days?’ This would be about the time that we discovered that there was a bar onboard, which helped for a couple hours. I was afraid to drink too much because it would seriously worsen the nocturnal pep talks I kept giving my bladder. What with bar time and sleeping, we only had about fourteen hours a day of idle time.
A couple hours a day, it turned out, could be filled with time spent being searched by police. We were stopped at least once a day by the Brazilian police, presumably looking for the cocaine smugglers I had been warned about. Carla-Paz and I seemed especially subject to scrutiny, because it was hard for the police to believe that two girls would be travelling alone without some kind of ulterior motive. (Our motives of wanderlust and stupidity did not seem to be a reasonable explanation for Brazil’s finest.) The second of these stops took place in the middle of the night. I was woken up from a dead sleep (an especially deep slumber, considering that it was being helped along with Tylenol PM for my throbbing ankle) by an angry Brazilian official speaking to me in Portuguese. I stared at him blankly and sleepily, trying to figure out what the hell he was saying. I vaguely managed to distinguish the word `passaporte,’ fortuitously similar to its Spanish equivalent.
I fumbled with my passport pouch and handed it over to the official. A single tablet of Pepto-Bismol, inexplicably tucked inside my passport, fell to the floor. The official picked it up and shouted something to his companion. “Oh, shit,” I muttered, getting up from the hammock. The officer began yelling at me, presumably asking about whatever drug he had just found.
“Um, medicina,” I said, trying the Spanish word. “Para diarrhea…yuck.” Carla-Paz came to my rescue, explaining in Portanyol, a hodgepodge of Spanish and Portuguese that generally leaves members of both parties confused. I escaped from the misunderstanding fairly easily: the officers searched my bag, found the true bottle of Pepto-Bismol in its appropriate packaging, and moved on to harass their next victim.
The other hours of the day could be filled with reading or napping or simply staring out at the scenery (which never changed, but that didn’t make it any less entrancing). The top deck had several white plastic chairs that were perfect for this activity. Brazilians, I quickly learned, are friendly people. They would sit down next to me and talk for hours, completely unconcerned by the fact that I didn’t understand a damn word of what they were saying. I appreciated the companionship, even if I had no idea what was going on. When I didn’t have company, I would let my daydreams take over as miles and miles of muddy water and green foliage passed in front of my eyes.
Unfortunately, it looked like my plans to go all the way to the end of the river had been derailed. Because I had spent so much time stranded in Iquitos, I had to choose between a jungle tour outside of Manaus and a subsequent flight to my final destination. I had to chose between spending another week on the boat and taking the jungle tour that would give me an up-close look at the wilderness and, hopefully, some wildlife. Besides the lack of time, I was beginning to worry that the days of bus travel at the end of the journey would be too much for my injured foot. It looked like I would only be able to take the boat halfway and fly the other half.
“This is beautiful,” Viktor said on our last evening, as the four of us were hanging out at the prow of the boat. “I can’t wait until we get to the actual Amazon.” I nearly fell over. “What?”
“This isn’t the Amazon,” Viktor said, looking at me strangely. “This is the Rio Salimoes.”
“What do you mean, this isn’t the Amazon? I thought we were on the Amazon.”
“Well, this river joins up with the Amazon. But it doesn’t become the Amazon until about ten kilometers after Manaus; for now we’re just on a regular river. It’s considered the source of the Amazon, though, they’re almost the same.”
“Are you telling me,” I said slowly, “that I have spent weeks of my life on … on a tributary? On a river that is not the Amazon River? And that I’m stopping exactly ten kilometers short of seeing the Amazon?”
“Does it really matter?” he asked me philosophically. “The experience is the same. It’s beautiful. You’ve seen so much.”
I saw his point. I understood that. The experience is, indeed, exactly the same. But I still felt exceptionally deceived. It doesn’t matter that everyone refers to this river as part of the Amazon or that they join up eventually. I felt like the Amazon River is a bad boyfriend that cheated on me. I didn’t decide to take a crazy and dangerous journey to drift along an unknown river! I could have done that in my own backyard on the Mississippi, for crying out loud. I wanted to float down the Amazon.
“But, I’ll have been travelling on this river for three weeks,” I protested, “and I won’t have spent any time on the actual Amazon River.”
He shrugged. “You could always just lie.” That stopped me in my tracks. “True,” I said. “So no worries?” I grinned. “No worries.” And we settled down to enjoy my last night on what I will, for the rest of my life, refer to as the Amazon River.