I awoke Saturday to find us drifting downstream within a stone’s throw of the shore. We passed a tiny church of weathered gray boards, followed by a series of one-room cabins of about the same size. Behind this small fishing village the rain forest receded over a series of small hills.
Our first stop just before 9am was the small fishing village of Almeirim. I got out onto the dock while we were stopped and bought a kilo of boiled shrimp from a woman on the dock. She scooped them from a large tub into a plastic shopping bag. Right now they’re hanging on the wall of my cabin for later consumption. At R$2.50 per kilo, they cost me about US$0.50 a pound.
I figured that they would be good when I saw several of the ship’s crew also buying bags of shrimp. The food on board is filling, but somewhat bland. Breakfast is sliced pineapple, dry crackers, and rolls. Dinner is rice, buttered spaghetti, and beef. Lunch has been the only meal with some choice, but even that lacks interest. If this were a working ship, I’d prepare for a mutiny.
Shay wanted one of the fried meat dumplings that a kid was selling on dock, and I helped him to get a couple (R$0.50 each). I sprinkled them with hot sauce and brought them back onto the boat. It turns out that they were boiled eggs, battered and deep-fried. Jeanne didn’t want hers, so I ate one. Yummy. I expect that they may have been duck eggs… they were the biggest hard-boiled eggs I’ve ever seen.
The ship was ready to shove off when Jeanne mentioned that it would be nice to have a bottle of hot sauce to spice up the shrimp. I remembered the bottle I’d used on the eggs. It was still 3/4 full, sitting on dock by the remaining deep-fried eggs. I got the boy’s attention and asked him
“¿Cuanto por la salsa picante?” He said it was R$0.20, and I handed him a one-Real note. He opened his ice chest and pulled out a frozen juice pop. “¡No!” I waved, and I finally got him to understand I wanted his bottle of hot sauce. As the boat was pulling away, he walked barefooted across one of the jutting piers and handed his bottle across the widening gap. We laughed, he gave us the thumb’s up. Another happy transaction.
Towards early afternoon we had reached the enormous delta of the Amazon. We were sailing down a channel towards Belém, and the jungle was a stone’s throw to either side. As the sun set we ate the shrimp, which turned out to have been salted and semi-dried. We shelled them with sticky fingers before popping them into our mouths. We chased them down with a draught of cold Antarctica beer.
We also ate the cheese we’d bought several days ago on crackers. It was sort of like a provolone, but a little stronger. There are tons of warnings in travel guides about eating food off the street, and they’re probably valid. I think we’ve all decided to take some risks for the potential rewards.
At around 6pm a canoe paddled out of the darkness and managed to snag the rear of our ship. It trailed another canoe twenty feet behind on a rope. Within a half hour, we had three canoes attached to either side of the ship. Most of the canoes carried children of five to ten years of age, and I still don’t know how they managed to catch us. For a short while they wandered the decks, trying to sell dried shrimp or jars filled with heart of palm. Then they merely waited on the bottom deck.
Just before 10pm they all started getting into their canoes. One by one they would cast off from the ship. They were quickly left behind. I couldn’t understand where they were going… there was nothing around but darkness. Then the ship’s spotlight came on, illuminating a settlement on shore. This was where the children were heading on the river in the dark. Towards this small, unlit settlement. Towards their school.