March 3, 2014
Cruising the Amazon
“If I mailed a postcard from here who knows how long it would take to get home?” That’s what one of my fellow passengers said when we sailed into Santarem last week. “This is so remote.” We crossed the Amazon Bar about 47 hours earlier so I can see how he would think this is remote. But depending on whose count you believe, if you dropped Santarem into Alaska it would either be the largest city in the State or darn close. It has jet service, good cellphone, internet, regular passenger boat service and a road, albeit not yet completely paved, that leads to the Trans Amazon Highway and the rest of Brazil. I don’t think of this as remote.
The next day we sailed into Boca da Valeria, a town of somewhere between 68 and 120 people, depending on how you are counting outlying families. Holland America stops here to give us a flavor of the Amazon and its people. On the few days a year when a ship calls the local population swells to about 200 with people selling handicrafts, kids in costume displaying their pet baby sloths, toucans, parrots, turtles, parakeets, baby alligator (with its mouth wired shut) and monkeys (for a dollar a picture), people are willing to show you’re their homes and they are proud of their school and church. Holland America asked us to please not bring candy for the kids, although they like it and may ask for it, if we wanted to give gifts we should buy pencils and other school supplies in Santarem. Someone apparently brought soccer balls for the school. Along the waterfront where we get off the tender guys with canoes line up to take you into the bays, lakes and sloughs for about 5 dollars. Of course the complement of passengers vastly outnumbers the locals when a ship is, but it is a nice stop.
Before we got off we were warned, several times, “There is no wi-fi in Boca da Valeria.” That’s fair enough warning since several of my fellow travelers spend an inordinate amount of their limited shore time looking for free wi-fi and then struggling to make it work when it is trying to handle about ten times more traffic than it was designed for. Even with this warning some passengers were not happy. One fellow traveler complained “I don’t see why Holland America doesn’t buy them a generator and satellite dish so we can have wi-fi here.” The guy did not have open eyes. All the buildings have electric meters, most have satellite dishes (pointed straight up at satellites over the equator, something of a novelty for me being used to almost vertical dishes) and the teenagers are using iPhones. (Yes, there is cell service.) I decided to bite the bullet and pay for shipboard internet, pricy but it doesn’t eat into my shore time.
I took my share of pictures of little kids with their exotic pets but wondered what happened to baby sloths when they stopped being cute, playful (one was examining a bic pen with great concentration) and rag doll like. Sloth stew? I asked one of the guides in Manaus about this and he got angry. He thinks wild animals should not be exploited and urged us, if we saw kids with baby sloths again not to pay or take their pictures. But in Boca da Valeria I did. At least I could see the baby sloths were well fed.
We took a canoe ride, the boat had a motor with the prop on a long shaft that enabled the boatman to run the canoe in very shallow water. This particular boatman sold us by producing a hand drawn map of the area (which we took a picture of) and showed us where he was going to take us. If we had not been out with Gil the day before this would have been the highlight of the Amazon, and was still pretty special. We saw several other villages, all seemed to be on a local power grid, and several seemed to be larger than Boca da Valeria.
We had agreed on a half hour but spent over an hour in the canoe. As we got further away from the main channel the canoe guide shut down the engine and pulled out his paddle and we had another quiet ride through the trees and vines. The quality of the light and the reflections of trees in water made me feel especially peaceful.