Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Belem, Brazil

I spent my last night in French Guyana next to a river in a hammock watching fireflies. I handed back my wreck and took the only form of public transport in FG (the Cayenne municipal bus service run by a union of all things) to where the share taxis depart for St Georges de l'Opaioque (AKA the border with Brazil). The place is just at the entrance of Cayenne's Chinatown know locally as Chicago. It's not as nice or interesting as it sounds. I had heard about Chicago on the radio in conjunction to the Global Aids Day. I now know why.

My last 2 hours in Cayenne waiting for the bus to fill up were spent watching junkies walk, limp and flail around. These were end-of-the-road druggies. Most had suppurating leg wounds. What clothes they were wearing were rags and they too fucked-up to even beg. Some of them would just sit in the road and talk to themselves as cars went around them. Eventually the cops showed up. Like demi-gods they bounded out of their car and sprung into action............by lifting and elderly Brazilian woman on the minibus for being in the country illegally. We pointed out that she was obviously headed to Brazil but to no avail. She was taken to the airport to be processed and deported to the place she was heading to. It's election time in France and police stats have to show action regardless of logic.

Another 2 hours of excellent French roads got me to St Georges.. There is a bridge to Brazil but the roads aren't ready yet so it was a motorized canoe ride into Brazil. The town on the other side was much more rough and ready than its French counterpart and much nicer. Unlike FG there was some street life. I had a bite to eat and watched folk do stuff before taking a night bus to Macapa, the capital of the Apama state. To make things a bit more fun there were reports of "pirates" stopping the buses with fallen trees and robbing everyone.The road was crap and I was glad I could not see the bridges we crossed (I could feel the planks though). I slept well except for when we stopped at little burghs where the Friday party was on. My introduction to the delights of Foro music.

Got to Macapa and crashed before venturing forth and getting a ticket for the boat to Belem. I found out I was stuck in Macapa until Monday. This was a bit of a mixed blessing. It's not exactly the most visited place in Brazil. There is an old fortress and a monument to the Equator. That's about it. That being said there is a nice waterfront and I had a pleasant time. I sat down at a cafe, ordered a Caipirinha and watched kite surfers do their thing. I was having a drink on the banks of the Amazon.

Once the sun goes down the whole riverbank is awash with small stalls selling anything from very good beef kebabs to ice creams and, of course, more cocktails. It's kind of fun ordering a drink from someone with a cart and two blenders but then again the result is something like a rather lethal milk shake. I decided to opt out of going to a Foro dancehall because I figured that just because the music was different they were still nightclubs; places I loathe with a passion.

Sunday was absolutely dead during the day. A combination of good catholic behaviour in the morning and no end of ungodly shenanigans the night before makes for a very, very quiet city. It was basically a day to drink fruit juices and watch a few cars and motorbikes drive around with huge banners of their favorite football club. I also stocked up on food and drink for the boat trip. A footie match between the 2 big Rio teams compunded the ghost town effect in the afternoon. In the evening said supporters gathered near the waterfront to celebrate or commiserate. Music was provided by people who think the huge stereo in the boot beloved by fuckwits back home is for wimps. They put concert sized woofers on the top of their cars.

The next day I went off to the port of Santana to catch the good ship Sao Francisco de Paula. I was set for one of the things I really wanted to do when coming to South America: the Amazon boat trip. It's also the only alternative to flying here and, to be fair, it is one of the shortest ones you can do at 26 hours. Still, it's one of the quintessential South American backpacker experiences.

The ship was a large 3 decker. The top deck is where the bar is and the other 2 have cabins for a high price or hooks for your hammock. I got there early and slung my hammock in what I thought was cramped spaces. As the boat filled I realised what cramped meant. I hitched up my hammock as high as possible to avoid the bum-in-face situation a lot of folk had to deal with. Once settled I got in and waited for the boat to depart.

It's sort of strange that a trip that is so hyped up can be that uneventful. Most of the time is spent drinking beer up top or napping in the hammock. The Amazon is ridiculously big at times to the point that I think we need new names for fecking humongous rivers. It's offensive that, in English at least, something where you can't always see the banks has the same nomenclature as the Avon. We would occasionally pass huge barges full of lumber neing pushed by tugboats. We did see a dolphin ar at least some sort of creature with a blowhole. If it was a dolphin it has the same habits as the bipeds around here and doesn't really do much when the sun is up .

A more interesting phenomenon was when we passed small hamlets on the riverbanks. Passengers would throw plastic shopping bags at people waiting in dugout canoes. The bags are full of clothes. It was a fun bit of charity giving and it impressed me a lot. There was also some very dangerous trading going on. A young kid drove his tiny speedboat (like a short version of a Thai longtail boat) into our wake and up a short ramp at the back of our boat to flog some homemade booze.

All in all it's rather bucolic. What made it special was that I had a "moment". These are times where what you are doing hits you in the face. After a gorgeous sunset I had a few beers up top, not having to face Sophie's choice of sunburn or Foro music. I would find a quiet spot away from canoodling couples and look out. I watched the dark jungle go by and , as we passed lit houses on the banks or moored boats, I would wonder what the people inside were like, what they lived off and what were they doing. It's then that it hit me. I was getting buzzed and having idle thoughts while travelling on the Amazon. The fucking Amazon! This is why I travel.

Just in case you were wondering.

Take care,



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