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Destination: Brazil

An Amazon for adventurers

The three-day 'banana boat' trip is no luxury cruise. But trade your bed for a hammock and let the journey begin.

October 20, 2002|Shirley Skeel | Special to The Times

Manaus, Brazil — Nir Etz-Hadar leaned over the deck rail, looking down on a wharf overrun with hemp bags, crates of Coca-Cola, oil barrels and Brazilians as I approached the riverboat Sao Francisco.

He grimaced and waved. "Expect the worst," he called out.

I did. A week earlier, two Danes at my hotel in Manaus, a steaming city in the heart of the Brazilian jungle, had described the banana boat ride up the Amazon River as a trip they would "never do again."

I climbed the narrow gangplank, scaled the ladder past the Gypsies in second class and met my new Israeli friend, Nir, in primeiro class: a vast floor of steel, skirted by tiny private cabins. Earlier that morning I had slipped aboard, gripping the ticket I had bought with my 30 words of Portuguese, and, on an empty deck, hung the new red hammock that would be my bed for the next three days. Now I faced a sea of yellow, blue and green hammocks strung from the rafters. I searched for the wretched thing.

There it was. A fat woman, already pretending to sleep in her own hammock, lay like a beached whale against mine. On the other side, someone else's limp hammock hung an arm's length away. I counted. In all, 80 hammocks were slotted like poker chips into about 150 square yards of deck space.

The cruise down the Amazon between Manaus, Brazil's former rubber-trading capital, and the colonial city of Belem on the Atlantic Ocean is a 1,100-mile run on the world's largest river in volume. Costing only $60 (meals included) for a three-day trip, thanks to Brazil's plunging currency, it is a magnet for budget travelers who come to experience local life in the raw. That, unerringly, is what they get.

At 46, I am not the typical young adventure-seeker who chooses to take a public riverboat down the Amazon rather than luxuriating in one of the tourist cruisers at several times the price. But giving up an air-conditioned cabin and a soft bed for an opportunity to mix with local people struggling to get by in Brazil's volatile economy seemed a small sacrifice.

I also had to travel cheaply, because I had given up my journalist's job in London to make a seven-month journey from the top to the bottom of South America. I planned to start in Venezuela, cruise down the Amazon, then go south along the east coast to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of Argentina. Though I started alone, I did not remain that way for long: Locals and other travelers were always quick to invite me to share a coffee and swap stories.

I arrived in Manaus, a city of 1.5 million that erupts from the rain forest like a heap of glass and concrete, after a meandering, three-week bus trip from Caracas, Venezuela.

At the peak of the rubber boom a century ago, Manaus was the Paris of Brazil, run by perhaps 100 magnates who forced the local Indians to work their estates and filled the shops with English china, French clothing and Belgian rugs.

The restored opera house, or Teatro Amazonas, built in 1896, stands as an aloof reminder of that lost grandeur amid chaotic fruit juice stands, electronics stores and souvenir shops. The theater's gold ceramic-tiled dome and pink-and-white pillared exterior enclose sweeping Italian Renaissance balconies and a ceiling rosette painted to mimic the view you would get standing beneath the Eiffel Tower and looking up.

Each morning at my hotel, the modest Pensao Sulista, I waded through a breakfast of melon, bananas, bread and coffee. On a local tour I met Nir, a 29-year-old university graduate, and discovered that he too planned to take the 150-passenger riverboat that three times a week carries cargo and people down the Amazon.

Girding for the voyage

The boat departed Friday, so Nir and I scrambled to buy hammocks, fresh food and tickets. We could sleep in hammocks on the covered deck or take a cabin for $30 more apiece. I peeked into one of the cabins. It was cramped, with four bunks and no air-conditioning. We chose the open air.

By midafternoon the three decks of the Huckleberry Finn-style boat were filled with bodies.

At 6 p.m. the boat pulled out from the dock, blowing its horn like a bus.

By 6:20 p.m. it was dark, because Manaus is only three degrees south of the equator. By 8 p.m. the hammocks were full.

At 4 a.m. two roosters, in crates on the lower deck, were crying murder.

At 6 a.m. the breakfast gong rang, and we had coffee and buns lathered in margarine. Boxed in by bodies on every side, I think I got three hours of sleep.

I awoke to see the Amazon Basin, the source of a fifth of the world's fresh water and oxygen, as a vast breadth of brown water lined with an unbroken canopy of leaves, veils of thick vines, patches of coconut palms and the wood huts of the Indians who live on the riverbanks.

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