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Brazzil - Impressions - August 2003

Brazil: Amazon Thriller

The boy grabbed the chicken by its wings with one hand, and with
the other hand, pulled and twisted the chicken's neck until it
broke. I thought the expression "a chicken running around with
its head chopped off" was a wives tale. The chicken kept running
around, flopping and bouncing around for at least three minutes.

Bryan Lazerow


Easter Break in Brazil is a five day national holiday (Thursday through Monday) and a time for everyone to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and head for the highways, waterways, and airways.

We live in Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas. Being that Amazonas occupies almost 40 percent of the Amazon region, with the state of Pará occupying a large part and with airline tickets to São Paulo costing R$ 1200 (US$ 430), a cheap alternative besides from staying at home, or going to a family farm, is to travel to the interior.

Almost two months ago during Carnaval, my wife (Francismary) and I made a trip to the Anavilhanas archipelago, in Amazonas, where we met two friends from Novo Airão. The trip ended with an open invitation from them to visit them in the capital town of the Anavilhanas, Novo Airão, so that we could see what life is like outside the Free Trade Zone of Manaus where everything can be found for a price.

After a light lunch of bean soup, under very threatening skies, we left to try to find a board at the port where all non-regulated boats arrive and depart. This is also the port that accepts 80 percent of the produce from the region.

A sleazy area is an understatement. The closest that I can relate this area to are stories I have heard about the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland, before it was revamped. The place is controlled by gangs, thugs, and is dangerous night and day.

Leaving everything that has any value over two dollars (except for the cell phone) at home, or in the car, we ventured to find a boat. In about a 100 foot space along the dock, there must have been 60 boats all of which being two or three stories tall, loading, being unloaded, or docked. We were directed by a person who "watches your car while away from it" to three men: A drunk, a young man in his 30's, and an old man in his 60's who was shaving without shaving cream using a used soda can which, as we were talking, he lowered into the dirty, oily river to fill with water. They informed us the only boat leaving this Thursday was located at another port. So we quickly got back to the car, locking the doors almost before we were even in, making our way to the São Raimundo port.

Located on "the other side of the tracks" which in this case would be a bridge next to a beer plan owned by Coca-Cola (Kaiser Beer), we parked the car on the pavement and walked cautiously around the muddy puddles to inquire about boats.

The first thing we saw, and the "main event" of the afternoon was a barge loaded with trash probably 10 feet high and 20 feet deep being unloaded by a back-hoe into 12 awaiting dump trucks. We were directed to one of two boats leaving the same day for Novo Airão. We decided to talk with the owner of what appeared to be the better of the two boats.

We were informed the boat departs at 9 pm arriving in Novo Airão at 5:30 am. Being that there is no regulatory agency that actively regulates the number of passengers on the boats, and the boats have a tendency to sink (one or two a year), we asked about the availability of a suite. We were shown the only suite available, and eagerly accepted it. The suite was 3 feet deep by 4 feet long with only a mattress and floor space for R$30 ($10). It might sound big, but it wasn't, and combined with a low ceiling, you felt even more cramped. It was better than paying R$14 ($4) a person to sleep in a hammock. The capacity of the boat is probably about 110 people.

We quickly drove to the nearest supermarket to buy the bare necessities for a trip that we thought would last no longer than 36 hours: one liter of milk, one loaf of bread, cheese, ham, cookies, and lemon for the caipiroska we were going to take with us. The rest, we would buy in Novo Airão. From the supermarket we dashed home so that we could make the sandwiches and prepare our bags for the adventure that would began with the 9 pm departure.

We did everything, and I even had time to take an international phone call from my grandmother by 7:20 pm when we left home to take a bus and then a taxi to the waiting boat.

The Adventure Starts

Arriving at the dock at 8 pm, with an hour to spare, we paid the taxi driver R$ 8 (US$ 3), and got out of the cab. As we got out, we were greeted by between 200 and 250 people swinging from hammocks on two levels and the upper level packed with people drinking and socializing listening to loud forró music.

Forró music in Manaus is different from forró in the rest of Brazil. Forró here consists of two people dancing in erotic positions. We slowly made our way over the wooden plank, which was our only access onto the boat, which hung gingerly over the soda bottle and trash filled water—the remnants of what had fallen off the barge earlier in the day.

Boarding the boat we zigzagged, bobbing our heads under each hammock cord pinned to the ceiling. But before climbing one level, we had to work our way around about 60 dozen eggs, 20 sacks of potatoes, 10 crates of tomatoes, sacks and sacks of avocados, and coconuts, as well as bags, suitcases, and other personal belongings. Climbing the second and third levels was a piece of cake in comparison to getting on and through the first deck. We easily found the woman who rented us the suite and "made our selves at home."

At 9 pm exactly, a rarity in Brazil, the boat, being over-loaded with people and their belongings pushed off from the port of São Raimundo. Luckily for us, there were no babies or overly obnoxious people around us. Although we paid slightly more for the suite, it came with no special permission to use the common bathroom, or shower facility (I say this in singular form, because there was one shower and toilet for men, and one of each for women), no air-conditioning, nor a lock on the door so we could better protect our valuables.

Settling into out new habitat for the next 9 hours, we were quickly overtaken by the extreme humidity the single 60 watt light bulb produced resulting in us having to leave the door ajar to try to stay cool. In a country where crime and distrust run rampant, and especially on a boat that charges R$14 ($5) at the end of the trip, and not when the people pile on, with no screening of the number of people, or what they bring with them onto the boat, to leave the door open even the slightest bit I think and thought was a ridiculous idea.

There I was, lying on my back, in a room filled with humidity, with a bag full of clothing, money, film, and cameras in a country where nothing is certain. And even worse for me, who looks more American than some Americans because of my blond hair and blue eyes. I resolved for our own security to place the 15 pound bag filled with clothing behind the half broken wood door keeping it half closed, while allowing a nice cool draft to enter the room. I slept for maybe 4 hours, after placing my feet on top of the bag hoping to sense any slight movements suggesting the door was being opened. Luckily, nothing happened to us or our belongings.

A Dead Man

Arriving in Novo Airão I was able to see the first glimpses of a new day arriving off the horizon and the night clouds being burned off producing a spectacular array of shades of red, yellow and orange which were reflected and contrasted against the dark water and green trees that surround the nearby islands.

Gathering our belongings, we were able to hear about a passenger who, after drinking a lot decided to commit suicide, or fell overboard, with the captain refusing to stop the boat. Upon descending to the first level, most of the hammocks had been taken down and the people disappeared into the town we would later learn houses 10,000, but looks like it holds maybe 500 residents. As we descended the boat, we overheard the police chief warn the boat owner that if the man is found dead, the owner/captain would be charged with murder/homicide.

Taking the advice and help from the woman on the boat, we each boarded the back of a motorcycle which is the taxi service for the town, and were taken to a hotel where we were hoping to relax, and then go off searching for our two friends: Amós and Adriana. To our surprise, arriving at the hotel we were greeted by Adriana. They are the relatives of the owners of the Inn. We registered, and went immediately to sleep.

Later in the day we heard the man from the boat was found alive hanging onto a tree branch along the rivers edge. After awakening and having breakfast, we called the motorcycle taxi to take us to look for gifts to buy. We went to three different shops looking for a variety of gifts, but were saddened to see the lack of variety. I ended up buying a small wood box with 11 different types of wood found in the region.

While with the motorcycle taxi, we decided to take a "city tour" to see some different areas. Although not a lot, we rode around for maybe 30 minutes. It was an experience as it was my first time on a motorcycle. Novo Airão looks very similar to other towns throughout the interior of Amazonas as shown on Amazonsat television: simple houses, few cars, people at ease as they meander their way along the street.

After lunch which consisted of fish, rice, beans, farofa, and water we went down to the river to relax in the winter sun of about 95 degrees (36 degrees Celsius). Afterwards, our friends placed an outdoor motor on their boat, and we went of a short "river tour" (two hours) that included a stop at one of the few remaining sand beaches. Being afternoon, and not having rained for a few days, the water has had time to warm up.

But what made the afternoon swim even more interesting was the variety of water temperatures found in one area. Instead of decreasing temperatures as you reach the river bottom, the temperatures were varied like layers of oil and vinegar. Since March, the water has risen about two meters or almost seven feet and should rise another 8 or 9 meters (about 30 feet) before the middle of the year. Returning to dry land shortly after 5 pm with a slight suntan, we retired to the confines of the air conditioned room to relax and try to replenish the lost liquids from the sun.

Sun combined with the river and the distance from civilization and the hustle and bustle of city life made time pass quickly but not too quickly. I was absorbed by the surroundings trying to take in as much as possible.

Dinner was a repeat of lunch. After dinner, we sat around and talked with the people who work at the Inn as well as their children that accompanied us on the river tour.

Chicken Tale

Saturday started off very cold. Turning the air conditioning on around 7 pm Friday night, and sleeping the night through, the room was like an ice block. After a light breakfast and relaxation in the shade watching other boats pass, we went down the nine cement stairs and 2 meters (6 feet), across the 20 feet of Amós' boat, where we jumped into the nice warm water. Amós finished what he was doing, came down to the river, untied the wooden canoe he built, handed me the paddle, and we set off for a short ride.

Lunch was an option of beef, chicken, or fish. The chicken was bought at a nearby farm, and brought back to the Inn where two boys who work for the Inn are responsible for cooking the food. They were taken to the back of the Inn, where each grabbed a chicken by their wings with one hand, and with their other hand, pulled and twisted the chicken's neck until it broke killing the chicken instantly. I thought the expression "a chicken running around with its head chopped off" was a rumor or something like a wives tale. Well folks, it is true, although not chopped off, it was running around, flopping and bouncing around for at least 3 minutes. They then cut the chicken's throat to bleed it dry, and then plucked the chicken and prepared it to be cooked. Even after its neck broken and throat cut, the chicken's mouth continued to have some reflexes. Interesting.

After lunch I helped Amós and Adriana prepare their boat for an afternoon trip on the Rio Negro. Around 2 pm, about 10 people loaded onto the boat and we set off. We went past the beach where we stopped on Friday and continued on. We came to another small beachhead where we stopped and everyone quickly jumped overboard even before the boat had completely stopped.

We played in the water until about 4: 45 pm when the skies began to show a storm coming down river. We loaded back into the two story boat and chugged back towards the Inn. Passing the Inn we rode back to where we stopped the day before  and left the 2 story boat, and got into the row boat, which was now equipped with a motor that looked like it came from a weed whacker modified to handle a propeller, in Portuguese called a motor de popa.

Arriving at the Inn, we had to quickly run up the concrete steps, which are usually immerged in water during the months of June, July and August, for cover because a very strong wind preceded a quick but hard downpour. It only lasted about 10 minutes, but probably dropped one half inch of rain. The rest of the evening consisted of a dinner of fish, and helping the kids who we had become friendly with create a list of names, or titles for family members in English and Portuguese. We were able to create a list with 26 names.

While sitting around talking, I felt a bug bite my foot. I looked down and it was a very tiny ant. But the bite hurt like I had never felt before. With great disgust for ants on my body I quickly reached down and killed it instantly. But the itching continued and continued. One of the little girls went into the kitchen and returned with a cotton ball soaked in vinegar and salt. She instructed me to place the gauze on top of the bug bite, and almost immediately the itching stopped. The only reminisce of a bug bite are the two holes the ant made in my foot.

The Greenstalk

Sunday started at 8 am, but I had planned to wake at 5 am. After breakfast, Amós, Adriana, their adorable 1 ½ year old daughter and I headed out for a short excursion to see more of the beauty that Novo Airão has to offer. We walked to the shore across from where we left the boat, and then Amós hollered across the 60 foot gap to a relative who quickly ran down from his house, hopped in an eight foot canoe, and rowed over to us.

They made me get in first, and as I carefully sat down, they gave me Evelyn to hold while the other two entered. Everyone was in and we pushed off. The canoe had never held as many people as it was at this time, nor was it built to hold as many people as it had. While Amós paddled, the boy who came to get us began to scoop water out of the boat. But we only had to cross 60 feet, and did it with relative ease and no problems. In the end, we all arrived with uncontrollable laughter. We tied the canoe to a pole and went up to meet the people that lived in the house. Amós and I continued our way up the hill which gave an outlook of everything in the area. The blue sky with slightly heavy white clouds hanging high above the green forest barely touched by man. We walked along taking in the beauty.

When I was a child, I now recall being told a story about a giant beanstalk that grew from the ground and went up into the sky. I think I found the roots to the story. In the middle of the woods, there was a root that grew up from the ground twisting and winding its way skyward. Its base must have been 5 or 6 feet wide, and easily 20 or 30 feet tall. It seemed to have stopped growing at the tree line. Its strong roots are used by people to facilitate their climbing of trees. I also believe it is a relative of the branches that Tarzan always uses in the movies.

From there, we went back down and got in the row boat which again had the motor placed in it, and we went across to the other side of the river. They say the grass on the other side is always greener.

The other side is considered a wetland because the ground is almost constantly covered with water and is unsuitable to build anything on. When the river is at its peak, they say it is possible to cross the island in a canoe without seeing dry land. Fruit is an interesting food because of the great varieties found throughout the world, and even in a certain region.

As we came upon a natural lake, we found a yellow fruit which I thought was passion fruit (maracujá), but was quickly corrected by Amós. Amós said this fruit is slightly bitter. As he opened it up, it revealed a white fleshy fruit similar to the fruit seen in ingá. It had two pieces of fruit inside. Its size was about as long as a pen cap, and about ½ inch thick. As I placed it in my mouth, slightly bitter was an understatement. It was a lemon!

Returning back to dry land with only about 2.5 hours left before we returned to Manaus by bus, I sat on the boat as it sped back taking in everything and anything I could. What a wonderful and relaxing place. Getting back required a last swim in water Francis says is polluted, but what people drink on a daily basis.

We got on the bus after confirming the price of the ticket to find the bus full. Full meaning all seats taken, but there was plenty of standing room available in the luxurious isle. So we settled in for a 5 hour trip. Luckily some people got off about 35 minutes into the trip allowing us to sit down.

The first 5 minutes of the trip was on paved roads. Then, as we passed a sign saying, "Road Ends" the bus continued on. The sign is a reminder to all that to most think the city limits is the end of civilization and the wild jungle begins. The bus went on the road that connects Novo Airão with Manucapuru. About 40 minutes into the trip of two hours and 20 minutes, with all seats full and no space left for people to stand, more people were awaiting along side the road to get a ride.

The houses along side the road separated by trees, natural lakes, streams, or ponds have no visible signs of running water or electricity. The houses are made of wood and are raised off the ground a foot or two. The houses in general were of one color: a light gray which is the wood's color. The roofs are made of cut buriti or tucumã leaves. Or for those that do not know these fruits, the leaves are 4 feet long and a foot wide. Cut into strips and tied, they are also used for basket weaving. The strips are tied down to pieces of wood, and hung where a concrete or tile roof would normally be. It would be assumed that the bathroom is an outhouse.

We stopped in Manacapuru at the bus terminal where luckily a large part of those standing got off. The bus then traveled one hour until the road ended at a ferry boat point located 20 minutes from Manaus.

We crossed the river returning back to Manaus where like in many cities located near rivers there is little green vegetation left. Large cargo ships lined the Port of Manaus unloading and loading cargo produced in the Free Trade Zone and setting off to all parts of the world.

Although we were on and in the river from Thursday night until Sunday at 1 pm, I only received two mosquito bites. Both happened on Sunday when we went to the natural lake where the water was still, possibly resulting in contracting dengue or malaria. From Sunday night to Monday at noon, I received six mosquito bites. And people say being on the river is bad!

Our trip was also planned and executed on the spur of the moment with little to no idea what we would expect to find in Novo Airão, whether we would encounter Amós and Adriana, or if we would even find a restaurant or hotel to sleep at. People said Novo Airão was just a stop along a trip but it is actually a great base point. It needs a lot of work before it could draw large numbers of tourists from all over the world.

Our trip came to a grand total of US$ 100 or R$ 300, and was well worth it. We stayed at The Pousada Aguas Negras (0xx92) 365-1161.

Bryan is an American residing in Manaus. He graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Brazilian Area Studies and Latin American Studies. The author is currently an English teacher who travels into the interior to experience a view most tourists will never experience. He may be contacted at ThisWayEnglish@hotmail.com




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