I had boarded the ferry at the port in Belém which was still moored against the dockside at seven p.m., which was the scheduled departure time. Some of the ship’s officers were leaning against the rails on the dock, looking at the ferry. A few late passengers walked along the quay with their cases and bundles of goodness knows what or pushed heavily laden trolleys with wonky wheels along the quay. A deckhand came and checked and altered the hawsers holding the boat firm against the quay as the tide dropped.
A pump was trying to transfer water from a pipe on the quay to the ship, but judging by the amount of attention both the pump and the pipe were getting from two crewmen in oily blue overalls, it obviously wasn’t going quite according to plan. I saw another crewman, carrying some tools, walk up the gangplank to get on the boat. The significance of this was not apparent until later.
An hour after the published departure time, there was an announcement from the captain over the ship’s tannoy system. He said that we were waiting for the pump to finish filling the water tank, which would take perhaps another fifteen minutes and then we would depart.
Dusk was approaching, the sun set and the lights of the city came on. Meanwhile, we were still moored at the quay opposite warehouse No 4 on one side and a wide river with green jungle in the distance on the far side. There are a few small islands opposite the port of Belém, but on the far side of this particular arm of the river is Ilha de Marajó, the world’s largest fluvial island.
The island lies in the middle of the Amazon River, spanning fifty thousand square kilometres and larger than Switzerland. It is fertile land, but half of the island is flooded during the rainy season. Only two hundred and fifty thousand people live here (Switzerland’s population is 8.4m) and bicycles and buffalo are much more common on the streets than cars and lorries.
I had hoped to see the last of Belém in the light, to see the city from the water as we set off. By nine fifteen p.m., when we did finally set off, just the lights of the tall buildings in the centre of the city were visible, while elsewhere was just a lot of dark shapes with occasional pinpricks of light.
It was also raining as it had been when I had landed at Belém airport a few days before. And it had rained at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon every day whilst I was in Belém. During my time here, I had learnt never to go anywhere without an umbrella, even if it was sunny, as a cloud would come over and drop more rain on a regular basis. I shouldn’t have been surprised as I was in the rainforest and it was the rainy season.
There was a mix of passengers on the boat. Some were locals using the ferry as a bus service to get from port to port. Others had been visiting family or shopping in the big city. But there were plenty of tourists and backpackers on the ferry for the experience. There was a party atmosphere on the boat as many of the tourists had been looking forward to this for ages and it had finally happened.
Despite advice from the booking agent to the contrary, both the restaurant and the bar were open, and it took very little time before there was a group of tourists around a table drinking beer purchased from the bar or spirits that some had brought with them. I peeled away from the party around ten thirty p.m., but I could still hear voices speaking English when I woke up around one a.m. I say speaking, but some of the voices were slurred and occasionally there was a round of raucous laughter.
I didn’t have a good night, what with voices until late, an unfamiliar bed or technically called a berth on a boat, the sound of the diesel engine, the noise and the blast of air from the air con, which I turned off but to little effect, other than to get hot and sticky, as the reduction in noise was minimal compared to all the other noises.
Some of my drinking buddies from the night before I didn’t see until late morning as they fell out of their hammocks or slipped out of their cabins after over-indulging the night before. But some people never learn, and several of us had reassembled at the bar and were drinking lunch-time beers. The bar had already run out of Brahma beer and now we moved on to Schin as our beer of choice. The locals said that the staff would radio ahead for fresh supplies, so there was little chance of the bar running dry.
The river was broad and full of swirling muddy brown water. Either side, the green jungle came down to the river’s edge. In the dry season we would have seen a beach, but the river was high and had overflowed into the jungle and water surrounded the base of the trees for as far as we could see into the almost impenetrable jungle.
Out on the brown water of the river there was greenery. There were clumps of floating plants sitting on the surface, being carried by the current or blown by the wind. Some were individual plants, but in places the plants had grown together and had made floating islands. Other debris gets caught up in the mass and a larger island develops. Small fish find these useful places to hide from predators. When the water falls, the clumps will get stuck on the beach and grow roots into the soil or may get stranded on a new sand bar in the river and start to colonise that and eventually create a new island.
On the banks there was the occasional house built of rough-sawn planks perched on stilts set into the mud with a boat moored beside it. Many of these hovels had a boardwalk that descended from the house into the river. Several of these boardwalks were flooded and looking from the ferry, I was not sure where they went or where the end actually was.
We had no end of visitors to the ferry. Some were entrepreneurs who would navigate their boats alongside and tie a line from the bows to one of the fenders hanging down. None of the fenders were purpose-made as they were all old truck tyres tied to the base of the railings with whatever rope was available. So there were a number of different-sized tyres and a colourful array of different thicknesses of rope used to suspend them along the gunwales of the ferry.
Then they would come aboard with a basket or an insulated polystyrene box to sell freshly caught prawns or palm hearts or whatever else they had available, but mostly local farm or forest produce. Most of the craft were similar in design, being flat bottomed, with low bows and a low transom where a motor was hinged with a propeller on a long shaft which could be raised in and out of the water.
The ferry was going quite fast and the boats would angle in towards us and close the gap. Even at top speed, most of the boats could only just keep up with the ferry until the engine overheated. If they got the timing wrong and missed the first fender, they would drop back and try the next. Most of the boatmen had done this many times and I was looking for one who might miss the ferry, but all of them made the connection, perhaps not to the first or second fender, but no one missed the boat completely. They all had experience, and this was their way of making a little extra money, and all of them had learnt well.
Even the smallest children, who could not have been older than seven, would coil a rope and throw it through the centre of one of the old truck tyres that served as fenders, whilst their older sibling powered the boat as close as they could to the fender. Then they would reach forward and pull the rope through and tie it off.
It seemed that there was always at least one of these boats tied up alongside us at any point during the day. Some, I thought, were just catching a lift up-stream. Some seemed to be piloted solely by children who weren’t selling anything but were just hanging out or playing with friends. Two boats, each with two young girls, tied up alongside us and they climbed aboard. They spent their time throwing their flip-flops along the deck as if playing quoits. They also chatted with the bar staff as if they were family or at least well-known to each other. The bar also sold sweets, and one of the older girls pulled out a few Reals and shared some sweets with her friends.
We left one channel and turned into a broad channel and the girls went back to their boat and cast off. It was as if they were allowed out and able to go where they liked, but not to go up the main shipping lane. The elder sister started the engine whilst her younger sister untied the line that held them to the fender. However, the operation wasn’t quite as co-ordinated as it could have been and the smaller sister was left hanging on to the fender as the sudden release of the line allowed the current to catch the little boat and pull it astern. No one seemed concerned while she held on, bending her legs to keep her feet out of the water whilst her sister revved the little engine to try to catch up.
The current and waves from the ferry were too great, so she headed away from the boat into smoother water on the inside of the bend. The little girl just held on to the fender with her legs curled up out of the water. She didn’t cry or scream but just accepted this as part of life on the river. It had probably happened before and is an occupational hazard.
Her older sister made up some distance by piloting the boat on the inside of the bend at full speed, with thick black smoke billowing out behind her as the engine whined at full throttle for longer than it was designed for. She then cut in fast through the bow waves and manoeuvred the boat bows expertly right underneath the fender, and her little sister let go of the fender and dropped on to the bows of the boat. She reduced the revs of the engine and soon slipped astern as the ferry ploughed on up the river.