The journey of a lifetime? Not exactly.
When most people think of a river trip they imagine a peaceful excursion along the shores of Nature, picnics in the sun and an old boat creaking along in the drift. Mention the word hammock and images of lazy days of relaxation come to mind, palm trees and perhaps a coconut to drink in the shade. Spend 8 days on the Amazon from Colombia to Brazil and you’ll never want to see a boat or a hammock ever again.
The idea was to save some money on flights and do some intrepid travel through the heart of darkness, immersed in the waterways of the largest rain forest on the planet. Thing is, there’s not actually much left of the forest along the river itself and the only wildlife to be seen were the poisonous spiders that crawled out from the crates of bananas on the lower deck.
The hammocks themselves were strung up like shoelaces at every conceivable height and direction, filling every available cubic inch. This effectively meant that every time someone scratched his ass each of his eight neighbours would know about it. After the first three nights of other people’s feet in my face I elected to sleep on the floor. Even then I was woken up three times a night by insomniac passengers who wanted to know why I wasn’t sleeping in my hammock. Their concern was all the more endearing by their accustom of thwacking a person twice with the back of the hand to get their attention before they asked you anything. One morning I was shaken awake by a CD vendor so that he could make his sales pitch. “Well, that’s a good start.” I told him.
I can say without prejudice that these were some of the most stupid people I’ve ever come across on the face of the planet. I thought they just used a monkey style sign language with me to make up for my limited Portuguese (like speaking in charades was really helping me improve) but then I realized they talked to each other like that too. By pointing at various parts of their body and throwing in the odd yelped word they’d once heard on the radio they got along just fine.
All the women on the boat over the age of 12 were either pregnant or had a baby. The good looking ones had two. Not that I’m against reproduction or anything but it didn’t look like evolution was taking any great leaps forward here. The kids really won my heart when they took to picking up any loose item that tumbled from my rucksack and dropping it overboard into the Amazon. Bye bye address book. Bye bye toothpaste. Whee.
The captain strolled around the upper deck in a white suit with the smug air of someone who had slept in a bed and eaten food other than the rice and beans we had to survive on. It was all we could do not to hit the bastard. His method of navigation wasn’t exactly confidence-inspiring either; at night we steamed through the blackest sky ever seen and he found our way by flashing on the front headlamp every thirty seconds or so. If we weren’t about to crash into a river bank then everything was okay.
One night we pulled into a river port at 2am and everyone jumped up to look, trampling over me on the way. It being 2am of course there was actually nothing to see and so they all stampeded over me again on their way back to their hammocks. The captain kept the engine running all night though just in case anyone had any plans of getting some sleep.
In the morning a porter got on and accused me of being American. He hated Americans because they ‘kill everyone, like in Iraq’. I’d been dying for the chance to shout at someone for day and so I leapt up and cried:
“We are all Christian brothers here! Your heart is rotten with the hatred of Satan – we are all children of God!” I got a round of applause from the other passengers and I went back to my hammock, suddenly grateful to the Christian missionary who’d given me a pamphlet the day before.
As our slave ship ploughed on through the murky brown waters of the widest, most monotonous river on Earth, I tried to work out how much the owner must be making out of these trips. My most conservative estimate was half a million dollars a year. At the bottom of my heart I knew he was probably an Israeli.
There was one bathroom to share between around a hundred people and it was a two-for-one deal where the shower was just to the side of the toilet. A slight snag with this design was that there was invariably an inch or two of shitty water swilling around the bathroom floor.
One Israeli guy aboard couldn’t wait for the queue any more and finally he shat himself for the first time since he was 3 years old. If we were tempted to laugh the look on his face warned us not to.
“I never want to talk about this again.” He declared, before throwing his Lonely Planet Brazil into the river. The guide book had described the Amazon trip as ‘the journey of a lifetime – a traveller’s dream’.
On the last day we took a short cut down a narrow tributary and finally got to see the jungle. All the big trees were cut down long ago and I doubted if any of the profits had been seen by the families who lived in shaky wooden huts along the river banks. The mothers and their kids paddled out in narrow canoes in the hope of charity from the passengers. The plastic bag of clothes I threw them also included an X-Men comic in Portuguese. If any among them could read then there’s a small community living along that river who think that mutants with supernatural powers now walk the earth.
The best thing about the whole trip should have been the ending. However it was in that moment that my American friend in the hammock nest to me realized he’s been robbed in the night. There was a big gash in his money belt where his cash used to be.
“Well. Look on the bright side, “I consoled him, “At least you’ve still got your hammock.” And then I ducked as he tried to hit me.