Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Infinite Patience

Miss me? It's been a while, I realize (that 'I don't like Portuguese' post doesn't really count), but spending nearly three weeks in the wilderness on Brazil's Western frontier will do that to you. My internet options during that time included the ever-popular threesome of obnoxiously expensive, mind-numbingly slow, and simply non-existant. So, I figured I'd just wait... Fortunately, Lott's been there to provide entertaining antics in Peru and Ecuador in the mean while.

So, Brazil... the interesting bits were my visits to the Pantanal (a gigantic field of swamps in the South-Western part of the country, swarming with a variety of wildlife) and the Amazonian rainforest, which you've probably heard of before. I've got lots of pictures from both of those, and should really get around to blog posts eventually, but for now, you get to hear about the Amazon river itself, seeing how it's the freshest in my memory still.

So, after 4 days at the Mamiraua Reserve in the Amazon, we were ferried back to the town of Tefe, where the other 14 tourists headed straight for the airport and their flight to Manaus, and I headed to the port to look for a boat to Tabatinga, at the 'triple-frontier' - the spot on the other side of the Amazon basin, where Brazil, Peru, and Colombia come together.

Being at the port, you are quickly reminded that boats are very much the only way of life in this remote outpost, which is only connected to the outside world by boat or plane

This was all happening on Monday, the 15th of June. I was aiming to meet Lott in Quito, Ecuador on the 23rd, and had some rather naive, romantic notions that there'd be plenty of boats plying the big river, meaning that 8 days would be plenty of time to get to Quito. Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups (thanks Under Siege 2) - let's just say I was wrong.

The first thing I learned was that there weren't any boats leaving Tefe this Monday. However, the nearby town of Alvaraes is on more of a major route, so there may be a boat going through there. I headed for Alvaraes, in the process very nearly exhausting poor Diana's (the girl from Mamiraua in charge of things in Tefe) command of English by insisting on going as early as possible. Going as early as possible illicited some concern from a woman operating the boat about taking along this gringo, who didn't speak Portuguese. I was more than happy to assure her that I've made it through much worse, so off we went, on a 15 minute boat ride, then a 15 minute ride on the back of a motorcycle (with my full backpack on my back!). In no time, I was in Alvaraes, with absolutely nothing to do. My fledging command of Portuguese established that the locals thought there was going to be a boat coming around 3 (there wasn't), then another around 5 (that didn't come either). Hmmm... well, at least I could go back to Tefe, a bigger town, for the night, right? Actually... the 'taxi boats' stop running at 5, so I could have one of the locals take me in his boat for a bargain basement price of R$100 (about $50 USD) - I stayed in Alvaraes for the night. Spent the evening at the one and only internet cafe in Alvaraes (the town doesn't get cell signal btw, but has internet?) mastering my Portuguese by chatting to the three girls who worked there.

Tuesday morning, I got out of bed, took my customary (in the Amazon) cold shower, and re-assessed the situation: it's the 16th, still a week till the 23rd, I understand Tabatinga is 3 days away, no problem, right? That afternoon, I boarded the Ulisses, which had departed from Tefe at noon, of course, and thus the journey began.

Two days later we arrived in Jutai. No, not in Fonte Boa, where I thought we were heading, in Jutai, a city another half a day up the river. I could've gotten off in Fonte Boa, of course, but there wasn't exactly a boat waiting for me there, so Jutai it was. Jutai, incidentally, gets mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook: "the boats to Tabatinga are via Jutai." I had always found this a bit cryptic, since there's no other mention of this Jutai in the book. Is it a town (not on any of the maps)? Is if a boat operator? Is it a sea monster you have to battle along the way? Noone knows... in reality, Jutai turned out to be a tiny little unremarkable settlement where I was going to have spend another 24 hours waiting for the next boat towards Tabatinga. Not for Tabatinga once again, just closer to it, to a place called Amatura. No, it does not host the Amazonian amature hour - stress on the last 'a' in Amatura. Now, I'm not entirely clear why when I asked about Tabatinga, the boat for Amatura was suggested to me, considering that the boat didn't actually end up in Amatura - it kept going all the way to Sao Paulo, which is another 8 hours closer to Tabatinga, but these are the things that are not meant to be questioned or understood, clearly.

Now, at this point, let's talk about the river a bit, and the travel on it. The Amazon is absolutely ginormous. There's other big rivers in the world - Mississipi, Nile, Yanghtzee, Danube, Volga, Mekong. I haven't seen a whole lot of those, but I'm not sure any of them can compete with the Amazon for the sheer volume of water running across. Closer to the Atlantic, the river is apparently a full 10km in width! Up where I was, it was a bit more subdued, but the little boat going from Tefe towards Alvaraes did take 15 minutes just to get across. As we sailed along (for day after day), I kept expecting the river to get smaller. And it kept stoutly refusing to do so. On both sides of the river is the forest - thoroughly flooded. June is the high water season on the Amazon, and, on average, the water level rises a rather astonishing 15m. The wildlife is also out on display - birds, monkeys, and regular sightings of river dolphins highlight the trip. So, that's the scenery, which is the upside. The downside is the eternal boredom! There's nothing to do on this boat. The first one probably had a good 50 passengers on board, the second maybe half that many. And not a single one of them was a tourist. Or spoke English. Or even Spanish. There was a lot of playing dominos and watching a DVD of bad Brazilian music passing for entertainment. I set up my hammock, and turned to books. Read two cover to cover, finished the last third of another. Read my Central American guidebook. And the Costa Rica guidebook some more. Eventually, my iPod was my last line of defense against the onset of insanity.

The Ulisses, sitting at the port in Jutai

Life on board - you put up your own hammock (I've still got mine with me - not sure what's going to come of it) and make friends with the people around you.

Another boat sailing into Jutai as we are setting off

Sailing up the river. This would be an unusually narrow portion of the river

The waters got to be really, really calm in the afternoons, making for some beatiful reflection shots

The sunset didn't disappoint. This, by the way, is the average width of the Amazon in these parts!

So, this was my frame of mind when we arrived in Sao Paulo de Olivenca on the morning of Saturday, June 20th (Lott in Quito on Tuesday, the 23rd, in case you forgot). After confirming a couple more times that the boat was not, in fact, going to go any further towards Tabatinga, I set off trying to figure out my next move. Upon finding a nearby hotel, three things were established:
1. The next boat for Tabatinga is leaving Monday - bad!
2. There's an airport here and there is a flight to Tabatinga on Sunday afternoon - ok
3. The hotel has a map, so I could finally see where I am, and I am pleased to discover that we actually seem to be quite close to Tabatinga - good!

Between the elation of finding out that we seemed to be pretty close to Tabatinga and the frustration of already having had my brain waves stuck in a bored neutral for much longer than I had ever wanted to, I was determined to find (buy) a way to get to Tabatinga sooner. So... flight to Tabatinga: R$169, gets there late Sunday afternoon. I figured I'd be willing to pay a nice round R$200 to get me to Tabatinga sooner. Down by the dock, I found Mario. Actually, his name isn't Mario, but it definitely started with Ma-something... So, I'll refer to him as Mario here. Or maybe Codename Mario... yeah, I think I like that better. Anyway, he spoke Spanish, was sure that the boat ride to Tabatinga would only take 10 hours, and was happy to try and help me find somebody who'd be willing to take me there. I spent a bit of time trying to figure why in the world he was so willing to help me, until I eventually realized that he wanted to go to Tabatinga himself, and coming with me meant that I'd be the one paying. Later on in the trip, I also concluded that Mario was mostly harmless, if perhaps not particularly bright.

This is where things started to really take a turn for the bizarre, and I commenced learning all about infite patience. First Super Mario found his friend, who agreed to go up to Tabatinga for R$200. Then 30 minutes later, he decided R$200 wouldn't be enough to cover the gas for the round trip. At this point, I had pretty much resigned myself to spending an exciting day in Sao Paulo and taking the flight on Sunday, but Mario, undaunted, quickly produced another guy with a motorized canoe who seemed willing to go. I was, honestly, a bit skeptical, but my hotel room smelled just enough to encourage me to go.

So, off we went:

Me, on the boat. Under the umbrellas next to me was the entirely family of our driver. I can't even begin to give you any worthwhile reasons why in the world they were there.

Sights along the way - sometimes there are monkeys and sloths in the trees, other times, just kids.

The first sign of trouble turned up a couple of hours into the trip, when our driver requested that I pay him the entire R$200. I congenially pointed out that I'd paid R$60 for gasoline, and he'd be getting the rest when we got to Tabatinga. He seemed dissatisfied. I decided to give him another R$40 as a sign of good faith. This appeard to appease everyone, so we kept going.

At around 7PM, it was getting dark - I enquired Codename Mario how we were going to keep going after dark, since by my estimation, we were only half way through the 10 hour trip at this point. Commander Mario seemed unconcerned - we've got a flashlight! Well, OK. Around 7:30, we pulled up to the town of Santa Rita. Or Santa Rosa. Definitely Santa R-something. I wasn't really inclined to remember the name by this point. Here, we got out, and set off searching for something. It took me a while to determine what we were searching for, but soon enough, it became clear that we were looking for another boat. Mario seemed to think that we were all going to keep going, but in a different boat. Why not just continue in the boat we had? Something unclear, vaguely related to the fact that I had refused to pay the whole R$200 up front. I inquired if he, or our driver, really thought I was going to jump out of the boat, with my backpack, in Tabatinga and swim off without paying? Commander Mario didn't have a clear answer for that one. All of this confusion, however, became quickly resolved when we got back to the river and found no sign of our erstwhile driver, his entire family, or the boat. I put two and two together in my head reaching the inevitable colclusion that he had simply been planning to take R$200 for the 5 hour ride to Santa Roberta. I explained to Mario what I thought of his competence in negotiating all this. He protested that, clearly, none of this was his fault! I calmly explained that I disagreed. This pretty much killed the conversation.

To make matters that much more complicated, we found Guillermo in Santa Rodriga, who thought that Tabatinga was another 13(!) hours away. Three more, I inquired, hoping I'd heard him wrong? No, thirteen. Time to re-assess the situation once more:
- we're stuck in Santa Roanna.
- the boat that brought us here is nowhere to be found, even though I have some choice words I'd like to share with the driver
- we can't go on to Tabatinga tonight, and it's unclear how we would go about doing so tomorrow.

Hmmm... well, there's still the flight from Sao Paulo tomorrow, and lo and behold, Super Mario has found us a boat that'll take us back to Sao Paulo, right now. At this point, I'm pretty pissed though, and am not about to pay another R$100 just to go back to where we started, so we either don't go, or Codename Mario has to pay. He innocently declares that he has 10 Reals to his name. I consider knocking him out of the boat and into the water, but instead tell our new driver to go back to Santa Roxanna.

24 hours later, and I'm sitting in another motorized canoe, somewhere still short of Tabatinga, and wondering whether or not my situation has actually gotten better. It's dark again, and we have somehow managed to get lost on the Amazon. How do you get lost on the Amazon, you might ask? After all, I keep talking about how it's a gigantic river, and, if there was any doubt, we are always just heading upstream, until we get to Tabatinga. Well... for whatever reason, the little motorized canoes all hug the shores. I'm not entirely sure why, it's not like there's much of an actual shore there, just flooded forest, but they do it anyway - maybe the 2-3km wide river isn't deemed wide enough to avoid the big boats coming through... So we were hugging the shores. Furthermore, because the entire forest is now flooded, there are often alternative passageways you can take, parallel to the main river, and the little canoes seem to like darting along through those.

Mario leading the way intently as we sail down one of the side passageways

Earlier, we took one of these for a while, and eventually had to turn around and head back when we ran into a dead end. Or a live end, I suppose, since we ran into a wall grass, but definitely an end. At that point, I had concluded the side passages weren't really a good idea... Our drivers had not made the same conclusion, so in the evening, we were in one of these side passageways again, and after it had gotten dark, the flashlights hadn't prevented us from running into a tree stump sticking out of the water. After 10 minutes of making sure the engine was undamaged, we turned around and went looking for the connector back to the main channel. So, we were a bit lost. I was a bit tired, and a bit angry, and a bit sunburned, and out of reading materials. But my iPod still hadn't died, so a bit of sanity left! We finally made it back to the main channel, after a 45 minute detour, around 8PM, and had some 3+ more hours sailing until Tabatinga - I concluded the situation hadn't really improved, since the flight out of Sao Paulo would've had me in Tabatinga 2 hours ago, but I figured dwelling on this would just get depressing.

So, how did we get here? Well, the night before, I was obviously stuck in Santa Roberta. The following morning, I woke up a bit before 6 in the morning, dreaming of having a chicken dinner. Actually, it dawned on me, that wasn't really a dream, that was a not-so-subconscious desire to slaughter the rooster that was now keeping me awake. After a few minutes of contemplating this from the comfort of my hammock, my head and stomach chose to interrupt the train of thought and remind me that I had bigger issues to deal with: namely a hangover, stemming from going out for a few beers with Guillermo, Mario, and Noamy (well, I'm sure that's not how her name is spelled, but that's what it sounds like. Don't know how she feels about people named Amy...) the night before.

Noamy's silhoute in the darkness. She was the one bartender/hostess in what passed as the only bar in Santa Riva

After heading outside to clear my head a bit, I got back to find Yoshi (by now, I had decided to downgrade him from Mario to a lesser Nintendo character) watching a DVD (Guillermo had let us stay at his house, by the way). It was essentially Brazilian Cops, this particular episode focusing on drug trafficing at the triple frontier at Tabatinga. It was supposed to let us all get a look at Tabatinga (where Mario-Yoshi was actually from). I found that I couldn't actually care less (even though I did have to make a mental note of the apparently wide-spread drug trade going on there... under the mental category of 'things you want to avoid!'). Mario watched with sad puppy dog eyes, as if this was the most endearing and fascinating thing he had ever witnessed. I went to chat with Guillermo outside. Commander Mario would later display the same sad puppy dog look when staring at pictures of himself in front of the [not so numerous] landmarks of Sao Paulo... I decided he was just an odd character.

From there, things unfolded rapidly. There was a boat heading for Tabatinga at midnight. I sure as hell wasn't about to hang around Santa Rancha until midnight, so I had arranged with Guillermo to go back to Sao Paulo after all (R$120...), where I would catch the flight to Tabatinga and finally be done with the Amazon - price no longer being relevant. Codename Yoshi was content to wait it out until midnight, I wished him luck (and wondered how exactly he was going to get there with his alleged budget of 10 Reals... soon discovered I really couldn't care less). And then, right as I was about to board the boat for Sao Paulo, Mario worked his puppy dog magic once again and found a couple of guys heading up the river for Tabatinga, who'd be more than glad to take us along for R$100. Being highly skeptical of Mario's negotiating/planning instincts, I interviewed them as thoroughly as I could (one was Peruvian and thus spoke Spanish). Then had Guillermo (a neutral party without any interest riding on this) confirm. Not finding anything obviously wrong (it was emphasized several times that they weren't going to see any money until Tabatinga), I figured I might as well go. Another 10 hours later, and here we were trying to find our way back to the main channel of the Amazon in nearly total darkness.

You might think that, by now, the journey didn't have so much as a semblance of any fun to it - not entirely true. I was bored, tired, dirty, and frustrated, but the wildlife was there to entertain us. We saw a bunch of river dolphins, sometimes coming up no more than 10-15 meters away from our boat. Best of all, however, were the flying fish. We'd started seeing fish occasionally leaping out of the water early on after departing Sao Paulo. The first few I saw were just a few inches above the water. Soon enough, I started to notice that they often got 4-5 feet above the water and travel another 4-5 laterally! What they apparently lack, however, is good aim. Especially at night - one landed right in my lap the night before; I tossed him back in the water. Sunday, a few of them apparently decided to lay a trap for us, as five or six fish jumped out of the water at the same time right in front of the boat, landing all around us. Most of them cleared the boat, except for the last one that smacked Mario on the back of the head. We were all duly entertained. This continued the rest of the night - the few times I'd been fishing before were clearly in all the wrong places -

I hadn't caught much, save for a piranha in the Pantanal

here over some 5 hours after sunset, I had to keep throwing fish back out of the water. Oftentimes, when I'd go looking for the new arrival, I'd find out there were a couple more already on the floor that I hadn't even seen. I threw 8 fish back from my spot in the front of the boat, how many more may have been in the back is anybody's guess.

By about 12:30, the Amazon adventure finally came to a conclusion, when we pulled up to the dock in Tabatinga. Paying, and thanking, our drivers, I headed off for the town of Leitica across the imaginary border with Colombia and bid adieu to Codename Mario, not harboring any interest in ever seeing him and his puppy dog eyes again.

The following morning, June 22nd, I was still harboring hopes of meeting Lott in Quito. Going through Iquitos, Peru, as per the original plan, was clearly out, so I bought a ticket for Bogota for that afternoon and had my last look at the rainforest from the window of the Aero Republica plane

I think I've seen enough of you, Amazonia, by now, but thanks for training my patience to extend all the way to infinity!

Deja Vu
Not quite done yet... Also in Leitica, I had purchased a ticket for early the following morning to go from Bogota south to the town of Pasto, near the Ecuador border. We were scheduled to land in Pasto around 10AM, which would give me plenty of time to catch a succession of buses to Quito and see Lott that evening. It wasn't an entirely good plan, since the flight was expensive, and after a couple of days in Quito, I'd be heading right back up to Bogota, but I figured it'd be nice to see Lott, hear all about his Galapagos adventures, and get the stuff he had brought for me...

So, after an hour's delay in Bogota (accompanied by lots of promises of we're going to start boarding in 5 minutes, senor! But your plane isn't even at the gate yet, senora!?), we finally left. I understood that the pilot claimed the flight to Pasto would take about 50 minutes. We were airborne for an hour, then landed. I was surprised that Pasto has a fairly large airport... Then, I walked back into the terminal, and I was struck by an odd sense of Deja Vu - why this place is almost identical to the Bogota airport! They've got a Dunkin Donuts in Pasto too? Wow that's amazing. And the security checkpoint is almost the same. I wonder, why the rest of the passengers aren't heading for baggage claim, but are going to some agent instead? Wait a second... this isn't deja vu - we are actually back in Bogota! The guy meeting us at the terminal didn't just look similar to the guy back in Bogota, it was the guy from Bogota! I never quite got a full explanation of what happened. There was an unspecified problem... the flight was rescheduled for later that afternoon - I just got my money back, as I clearly wouldn't have enough time to make it to Quito at this point (getting plenty of Spanish practice in the process) and emailed Lott that I'd see him back in Seattle!

So that's been my fun and adventure on the way from Mamiraua to Quito... oh wait, to Bogota... I'm just going to spend a full week right here in Bogota now, not traveling anywhere, and re-establishing my sanity. Hopefully, this will even give me enough time to post some more about the Pantanal and Mamiraua...

PS. The town is called Santa Rita, but I only confirmed this some 5-6 hours after leaving it, and coming up with new R-names for it had been fun. I still don't remember Codename Mario's actual name.


b mathew said...

Holy shit dude, great post and pictures!!! Saw Cyrus few weeks ago at chinese breakfast - thats as adventurous as my life's been these days :). Take care!

Amy S said...

Alex I met you at the Uakari Loge in Mamiraua. This post is hilarious. I'm glad you finally made it out. Thanks for sharing your adventure - I hope the rest of it goes well!