The Heat

Yesterday we left Nuvo Paraiso at 8am. It was the earliest we’d ever started, but Manaus and the Amazon beckoned to us from 500 kilometers to the south. We drove in formation… I took the lead, Tyler followed a few thousand feet behind, and Jeanne would guard the rear.

All day we followed the same pattern. I would spot potholes and call out their location to the vans following via the CB radios (called ‘PX’ in Brasil.) Properly warned, the others could slow to avoid major holes and ruts across the road.

Since I led, I often collided with road hazards head-on. My entire day consisted of smashing into a pothole, cursing, and warning the folks behind me. (The routine varied a little while Shay was in the car with me. I would curse, apologize, and then warn.) We could easily maintain a speed of 55 MPH using this technique.

As we drove south, I would occasionally call out the latitude. “Zero degrees, fifteen minutes north!” “Zero degrees, five minutes north!” And then we were there. The Equator.

Crossing the equator

The equator crossing in Brasil is marked by a hockey stick embedded in a stone. It’s not clear to be why, but I guess that the first man to pull the stick from the stone is destined to win the Stanley Cup and be proclaimed King of the Brasilian Empire. I didn’t try, mainly because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life learning Portugese.

We lined our vans up at the monument and took pictures, of course. It’s the first time I’ve ever crossed to the southern hemisphere. Jeanne filled up her sink with water, pulled the plug, and… the water went straight down! No swirl at all!

Science Moment: The earth’s rotation causes everything moving in the northern hemisphere to have a slight deflection to the right, and everything in the southern hemisphere to have a slight deflection to the left. This is called ‘Coriolis force’ after the French civil engineer Gaspard G. Coriolis.

In the northern hemisphere, Coriolis force causes water in a sink to swirl clockwise when the drain is pulled. South of the equator, the same force causes water to swirl counter-clockwise. (I just confirmed this in the hotel sink.) At the equator, there is no Coriolis force. Draining water doesn’t swirl.

After performing physics experiments, we mounted up and drove south. Another hour brought us to the northern boundary of the Uaimiri Atroari Indian Reserve. Cars are not allowed to stop or take photos within the reserve. Cars and trucks are not allowed to drive within the reservation between sunset and sunrise.

The Uaimiri Atroari seem to respect the forest. For the most part, the jungle grows naturally, crowding the road from both sides. Animals are also more visible in the reserve. Shay and I spotted a monkey and numerous species of birds, including parrots.

We also spotted Uaimiri Atroari. We passed a large group of children walking alongside the road escorted by several women. A little later an elderly gentleman was strolling, wearing shorts and carrying a bow and arrows. We passed another young man carrying a rifle and a handful of dead birds. The women and children smiled and waved at us. The men we passed looked like they hadn’t smiled since their circumcision ritual.

Without exception, these people were beautiful. Their skin was smooth and brown, their eyes black and round, and their hair was onyx and hung straight down. When they smiled, their teeth were perfect and white. These were designer people. They looked like they should have a tag on the back of their necks reading ‘Gaia Designs’.

After 120 kilometers we left the reserve and were again in the impacted forest. We stopped at a restaurant about an hour south of the reserve. The restaurant, like many roadside restaurants, was a patio with a roof and no walls. While we ate, two ducks and a goat wandered through, apparently to see where their lives were leading.

The restaurant served one thing, and what that was wasn’t clear to us. (Our portugese is nearly non-existent.) We told the boy serving that we wanted four of whatever he would bring us, and about a half-hour later the food arrived.

He brought us a dish filled with potatoes, boiled eggs, and hunks of chicken in broth. Another bowl contained beans. A big platter of rice appeared, and a plate of fried chicken. It was delicious, and it cost is about US$2.50 apiece.

As we approached Manaus, Tyler took the lead. He’s more comfortable with driving in cities, and after circling around a few times we arrived at the Central Hotel Manaus. They have parking, and the rooms were decent, so we took rooms for the night.

We ate dinner at Galo Carijó, where we all ordered Tucunaré, known in English as ‘peacock bass’. It was served whole, deep-fried and incredibly good. We squeezed lime across the fish and ate rice and beans on the side while drinking cerveja estupidamente gelada (‘idiotically cold beer’).

On the 17th I awoke to find Jeanne already working on her car. She was going to drive it to the VW dealership to try to stop her oil leak. A gentleman from the hotel went with her to show her. He was driving a 1995 white VW kombi. Jeanne also has a problem with her air conditioner. The condensation is leaking into the van, and every time the passenger door is opened, about a gallon of water comes pouring out. You expect to see a goldfish flopping on the ground in the middle of the puddle. Because of the constant moisture, the carpet has acquired an odor that could be charitably described as ‘funky.’

The first thing I needed to do was to find money. I was down to my last hundred dollars (in Reals, abbreviated ‘R$’), and if I couldn’t find money in Brasil, things could be difficult. Luckily, I was successful.

On the Use of Bank Machines in Brasil: First of all, make sure your bank card works with the Cirrus network. (The Plus network works with some banks, but is less common.) Then, when you go into a bank (such as Banco do Brasil), look for the one bank machine that has your network’s symbol somewhere on it. In a line of 10 electronic tellers, only one will have this symbol and only that one will work. Banks have a withdrawl limit of about R$1,000 per day.

I went off to try to find Enaza, which supposedly ran ships to Belem. After wandering around the alleys of Manaus, I figured out that Enaza’s office had moved. I asked at the Best Western, and a gentleman there told me he would help me find it. This is how I met our second guardian angel, Aguinaldo Teles S. Aguinaldo lives across the river on a house set on poles. When the river is down, there is a trail to his house. When the river is up, there is a boat. He crosses the river every day on the ferry to visit friends and sometimes to take tourists on cruises into the jungle. He’s from an indigenous tribe, and learned to speak English from missionaries.

Aguinaldo told me he had nothing to do that day, so he would take me around to find a cruise ship. We walked along the waterfront until we came to the ticket offices of Serpe, and Aguinaldo quickly scooted me into the back. There I met with a man who spoke portugese very quickly, gesticulated, and then pointed to the number ’24’ on the calendar.

Aguinaldo translated. The next Enaza ship didn’t depart until October 24th. That was six days away. After some more portugese and more gesticulating (the calendar was knocked off the desk) I learned that we could go downriver on an air-conditioned luxury boat, and ship our vans separately on a barge. They should arrive in Belém within an hour of one another.

The gentleman from Serpe gestured some more, and then wrote down some prices, and then grinned and stuck his thumb in the air. This is the most common gesture in Brasil. It’s used to indicate that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. When we drive by, folks give us a thumbs up. Waiters give us a thumbs up to indicate a good choice, or to inquire if we’re happy. Folks don’t wave, they simply put their fist in front of their chest with the thumb pointed up and they crack a smile. It looks so exagerated it’s almost comical, and everyone does it from 2-year-olds to grandmothers.

The price would be R$400/600 for a double cabin / suite respectivly, and R$500 to ship each van. That’s about US$450 to US$550 per vehicle including passengers. Less than the US$750 I’d heard. I told Aguinaldo that I needed to consult with my friends, and we returned to the hotel.

The rest of the day was spent Doing Things. I did the following:

  • Got most of my hair buzz-cut. It’s much cooler and low-maintenance.
  • Bought two bottles of Bombay Saphire gin. If I’m going to drink martinis, I want them to be worth drinking. (Dry vermouth is still missing in action. They have about 10 different kinds of vermouth here, including white, pink, and red, but ask for ‘vermouth seco’ and you get a blank stare.)
  • Bought a bottle of Phillip Rothchild chilean wine. The combination intrigued me. We plan on drinking it on the boat.
  • Bought underwear. Underwear is the single gating factor in the need to do laundry. I also bought a new towel, since the one I brought had gone missing in Santa Elena.
  • Pulled everything out of the van that I would need on the boat, I hope.
  • Bought a few fresh rolls of medium-format film.

You can get anything in Manaus. Because it’s so far away from everything else in Brasil, Manaus has been given a special tax-exempt status. As a result, the downtown blocks of the city are a bazaar, and you can find just about anything except dry vermouth. All of the latest video game consoles and software are sold from booths in the street, each containing a TV. Most of the time the owner simply bangs away at the controller, ignoring everything except the game.

Near the hotel are two stores selling radio equipment, and Tyler bought an external antenna for the CB he’s using. This should give him better range. We have used both FRS (talkabout) radios and CB, and find CB to be much clearer. FRS communications often require things to be repeated several times, and then people simply give up out of frustration.

Jeanne and Shay crossing the Rio Branco

Towards the end of the day we all paid for our passages, and inspected the boat. It was more like the African Queen than a cruise ship, but it’s a noble vessel. Our cabins are tight and clean, and there is a restaurant and bar. There is a hammock deck, and several people had already strung out their hammocks and were waiting for the boat to sail. (On this ship, the hammock deck is also air-conditioned, making this method of travel quite comfortable, albeit with less privacy.) On the aft deck of the boat are open-air showers, where you can stand under a shower while watching the scenery pass by.

The dock was crowded with cars, trucks, and boats. Cargo of all sorts was being loaded and unloaded. One boat was unloading an entire truckload of Antarctica beer. Bale after bale of toilet paper were being thrown into the hold of our ship.

We heard a scream, and turned to see a pig being pulled from a boat by a rope tied around it’s rear leg. It was black, hairy, and very fat. This very unwilling pig was eventually pushed into the passenger seat of a VW beetle, which then drove away into Manaus. The pig stood with it’s hoofs on the front dash looking out the windshield.

A small boy at the dock was hovering around us, watching us intently. (I think he was fascinated with the push scooter that Tyler bought Shay.) Under one arm he carried a foam cooler. I asked him what he had in the cooler, but he wouldn’t open it to show me, he just kept saying the same word in portugese. Finally he opened the cooler to show me a single, half-melted popsicle. “How much?” I asked. “Uno”. One Real. I nodded and handed him the bill. He opened his cooler, and I retrieved what was left of the popsicle. It was yummy… sort of a toasted coconut flavor.

The boy ran around to all of his friends showing them the empty cooler. He was practically dancing with joy at having sold all of his popsicles. This was much sweeter than the popsicle.

If this dispatch gets out, it may be a while until I’m able to send another. The ‘Navio Santarém’ sails 18 october at 4pm. We’ll be 4-5 days on the river, and though ‘internet’ was mentioned in connection with the boat, I just can’t make myself believe that there will be a connection.


Note: If you need assistance with anything in Manaus, or are looking for an interesting, English-speaking guide, contact Aguinaldo Teles S. He can be reached via the Central Hotel Manaus, fax +55 (92) 622-2609, or email.

Make it clear that your message is for Aguinaldo Teles S.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.