Princess Christine and VIP treatment

Christine, a German fellow traveler I met on one of the boats has been educating me on the Brazilian ways for the last couple of days. We talked about everything – her impressions of Brazil, everyday life, the different idea she had had of the country before coming – but most of all about the relationships between man and women.

Most of the previously mentioned topics are the result of men/women relationships. For example, life changes dramatically for both partners when in a relationship. Girls wouldn’t talk to the couple as it might be seen as an attempt at stealing the boyfriend. Another example – if a girl wants to dance with another guy she must ask permission first. If she doesn’t she is considered to be compromising the status of her boyfriend. Life becomes very dull when you are in a relationship – you do everything together not for romantic reasons but simply because both partners are afraid the other will cheat. It is just a way of keeping an eye on your significant other. Personally, I think that is a bit extreme but it does make perfect sense when you get to know the culture. Brazil is afterall the most sexually liberated country in the world.

There is a ‘kissing’ culture or the so called ficar that dominated the life of young Brazilians. The sole purpose of going out is to kiss as many people as possible or shall I say as many girls as possible as it seems to be more of a score-keeping for guys than it is for girls.
– When in a club you start dancing but 15mins later you stop because the guy is trying to kiss you – complains Christine who loves dancing but doesn’t get the chance to do it too often.
– They go to clubs to kiss, not to dance – she adds. Christine says that often they don’t even make it to the club.
– They go to the supermarket to buy beer, and spent the rest of the night drinking beer on the pavement in front of it – she says. Or they will just spend the night in front of the club drinking.

By now you have figured what a major role drinking plays in Brazil’s everyday life. The drink of choice is beer. Rather light, watery beer. On the boat to Santarem (the worst boat of all five) they’d start drinking after breakfast and carry on late into the night. By noon the square, plastic tables would be covered in carefully arranged empty beer cans.

– You just can’t trust Brazilian guys – Christine says. In most cases they are just trying to kiss you.

Note to self: Don’t trust Brazilian guys under any circumstances. Better safe than sorry!

Another peculiarity of Brazilian men is the type of women they like. For the last couple of days I have been hanging out with Christine and I have noticed guys would only pay attention to her. They wouldn’t give me the day of light. Christine is a large girl with lovely curly, light brown hair and light green eyes. She has an enviable ass and fat legs.

I am used to the attention and the lack of it bothered me. I asked Chris what type of girls they liked in Brazil. She explained.
– Big girls are popular here. They like big bottoms, big breasts and fat legs. The more meat you have, the better – Chris said.
– They also like me because they think I am blond. To them this is blond – she said pointing to her hair.
– To them I am some kind of a princess! – she exclaimed. Particularly here in the North where everyone is so dark – she added.

If Chris hadn’t explained I would have taken it personally. But it was perfectly fine in this case. Besides there were great benefits to hanging out with Princess Christine.

Chris also explained Brazilian style complements. She told me at first she got offended when they commented on her legs.
– You have such fat legs! – they would say. As she got to know their ways she learnt to appreciate the complement. Because of Christine’s looks we got a very special deal on our boat tickets.

We met this guy on the bus on our way to the port. He let Chris have his seat and started talking to her. He obviously liked her (no surprise there!) and decided to escort us to the port. We got into a taxi and were thinking how expensive it was when the guy offered to pay for it. We were more than happy to oblige. We then invited him for a drink as a way of thanking him but he paid that too. We complained how expensive the tickets were and how we had paid half what they were asking on the way here. He said he had a friend at the port and would pull some strings to get us cheaper tickets. We ended up paying half the price and even got the food on board for free. It is all about knowing the right people in Brazil.

Obviously the guy was hoping to see Chris again but she had no such intentions. We just took everything he had to offer and left. They treat women like a piece of meat but we got our own ways of getting back at them. Cruel? Just fair.

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Amazon boat travel: The End

We are just a few hours away from Belem – not only our final destination on the Amazon, but also the end of the river itself. As I am approaching of this adventure I thought it would be nice to write down a few things.

First of all – THAT IS IT! I have sailed the entire length of the Amazon and even a bit on the river leading to it. This means: 5 old-fashioned steam boats and 15 days of continuous travel. I have shared boats with cows, chicken, pigs and various cargo. I have slept in hammock surrounded by sweaty adults and screaming children. I have ate the same food on every boat and occasionally got my stomach upset. I got robbed twice. I enjoyed gorgeous sunsets and sunrises full of hope. I marveled at the clear, stary sky at night and enjoyed the wind in my face. I saw the river change from a mellow float to a wavy mess. I gaped at riverside jungle communities and breathed the buzz of the ports. I made friends, played games, chatted afternoons away, wrote stories, read, slept, and all in all had a blast.

I loved river travel despite the few problems on the way. It delivered exactly what I had imagined and more. Every time I got off a boat I felt a bit sad. Now even more so because it is the end of a chapter in my travel adventure. Spending 3+ days on a boat, sharing your life with others got me attached to the boats and to some more than others. Every time I left I was leaving friends, fun, and a careless, peaceful living behind. Yes! I looked forward to a clean shower and a change of clothes but that didn’t lessen the nostalgic feeling. Tomorrow morning I would leave river travel and the Amazon behind to continue my adventure down the Atlantic coast of Brazil and into Rio de Janeiro.

A day in Tabatinga (Brazil)

The last couple of posts have been heavily charged with anger and frustration. On the bright side the day I spent in Tabatinga was mostly pleasant.
I took a lancha from Santa Rosa (Peru) to the Brazilian town of Tabatinga on the 3-way border. I asked where the immigration office was and they said it was far and I should take a taxi. I could immediately feel the change of countries – signs were in Portuguese and people didn’t speak Spanish. Amazingly, we were only a short boat ride from Peru.
A helpful, local guide hauled a taxi for me and in a few seconds a motorbike stopped in front of me. ‘Surely, this can not be the taxi!’ I thought. ‘ How am I supposed to get on this thing with my bags?’. Everything pointed to the slightly unnerving reality though – it was the taxi and I was getting on it. Surprisingly I didn’t fall off of it and I rather enjoyed myself.
We reached the immigration office and two friendly officers greeted me in broken Spanish. I handed them my passport and they looked at it in confusion. They didn’t know whether a Bulgarian passport required a visa. I knew I didn’t but let them do their thing, going through folders, feeling powerful. They started the registration process when they saw I didn’t have the Peruvian exit stamp and said they couldn’t give me the entry stamp before I got it. I explained that the office was closed and that I was going back for it later. They advised it was better to get it first and then go back to them.
The taxi driver was waiting to take me to the hotel. We got there and a mellow lady told me the price. I couldn’t believe it as it was more than double the price listed in the guidebook. I asked whether there were any cheaper places, they said no, I said it was too expensive, she gave me a discount and I took it. Meanwhile the taxi driver offered to go check the boats’ departure schedule. Depending on it I’d either spent the night in Tabatinga or leave. He came back, saying the next boat wasn’t until tomorrow, so I prepared to spend the night. I was desperate for a shower and a bed. I freshened up and went out to find some food. It was January 1 and most shops were closed. I stumbled upon one of those ‘per kilo’ restauranrts so typical of Brazil. I was excited to try it out as I have read about it before. I got my food and headed to the counter. I was surprised when it came up to a staggering $8 as I thought it a cheap option. $8 for a budget traveller is a lot of money, particularly when an average meal costs $3-4. That’s Brazil for you!
After lunch I headed back to the hotel for a short nap. I had arranged to meet the taxi driver at 2pm s he could take me to Leticia (Colombia) where I could exchange money and later get my passport stamps sorted out. I went out to meet him but he wasn’t there. The host lady explained he had been there, waiting for me but had left. I asked what time it was and she explained the 1h time difference. Despite the close proximity of the countries, Brazil is 1h ahead. From there on everytime I asked for the time, I would also ask whether it was Brazilian or Colombian time. Same story with the money: $R/.1 = $C/.1,000 pesos and they use them interchangeably. Can get a bit confusing sometimes.
All money exchange kiosks were closed but I managed to find a cash machine. I took out a staggering $C/.200,000 pesos which only equals to about $90.
I was then off to Peru again to sort out my exit stamp. I found the immigration ‘officer’ – a boy of about 20, dressed in casual whites – sitting on the stairs in front of the office. He asked for a piece of paper I had thrown away, thinking I wouldn’t need it. I had never needed any other piece of paper and nobody had said anything. The only one I got rid of. The guy said it would have to be re-produced at a fine of $10. I didn’t mind too much as I used one of the fake $20 bills and he gave me a good $10 bill back. While processing my passport the guy asked how was my New Year’s celebration and I told him about the robbery.
– I apologise foryour troubles – he said as I was leaving.
The Brazilian officers gave me 60 days, then asked if I wanted 90, I said OK and they scrapped the 60. They also gave me advice on plane and boat travel. I then walked around town in search of teh harbour where I could get more info about tomorrow’s departure. By the time I was done it was dinenr time. I thendid laundry and went to sleep. I got up at 6am the next morning and headed to the harbour. I had to be there at 7am to buy my ticket. I was expecting a crowd but I was the only one there at 6.45am. There were about 10 people when the ticket desk openedan hour later. I wondered why I was told to come so early but I realised why when people who went at 9am could hardly get tickets. I then got some breakfast and headed back to the hotel. On the way there I came across the local market and headed straight to the fish section. They had many that looked like piranhas but I wasn’t sure so I got close and personal with them looking for sharp teeth. I left still unsure until someone confirmed my suspicions later that day. I thought that was one of the coolest market visits ever. Soon after lunch it was time to pack up and head to the harbour for boat #3.

When shit happens it happens all at once

(River travel in Peru and Brazil)
– Put your hands up and spread your legs. – demanded the female police officer.
– Do you carry a bag? – she asked, while feeling my body fopr weapons and hidden drugs.
– No – I shook my head and pointed to the camera case hung on my neck.
She opened it just to make sure there was nothing but a camera in there. We had boarded a boat in Tabatinga (Brazil) a couple of hours ago, waiting to depart, while the police was rummaging through our bags. We were at a 3-way border between Brazil, Peru and Colombia. It took 2h to do it due to the high number of passengers. The regular boat service had been suspended due to the holidays (Xmas) and there had been a limited number of boats departing to Manaus.
The police separated the men from the women and each group stood on the side of the deck while the police officers were thoroughly checking IDs and bodies. Then they started going through the bags manually, opening them one by one. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to just use a dog?!’ I thought and sure enough there was one sniffing at the other end of the deck. Whether it actually did anything is questionable. It looked hot and distracted while breathing heavily through his mouth. It drewled all over the bags. ‘This is disgusting!’ I thought. ‘I hope it doesn’t go anywhere near my bags.’ Luckily it didn’t.
All that time both men and women stood on just one side of the deck, the maze of hammocks was lifted, and all bags opened following police orders. All this after I had barely managed to find a tight space in the middle of the deck to hang my hammock and had carefully secured my bags by wrapping them in black bin bags.
– Keep an eye! – said the woman sitting on the bench next to me, conspirationally pointing to her eye and leaning towards me. I shook my head in confusion, I couldn’t understand what she meant.
– Keep an eye on your bags! – she explained – It is very dangerous now. Someone might slip drugs into your bag. Keep an eye! – she repeated. I kept an eye all right! I was not going to let anymore shit happen.
Standing there in the heat, keeping an eye on my open bags, it suddenly hit me. I haven’t seen my iPod in its usual spot in the uppser pocket of my small backpack. I haven’t seen it in a few days as a matter of fact. I mentally ran through my bags hoping it would be in a different pocket but I had a strange feeling it wasn’t as I hadn’t seen it while re-packing my bags earlier that day. It slowly dawned on me – it had been stolen. It must have happened on the very first boat I boarded as that’s the only time I took it out to listen to some music. Funny thing is I didn’t even remember what happened. Hell! It only dawned on me that it has been stolen a few days later. I remember listening to it on the hammock, then having it in my pocket while wandering around the boat, and then nothing. I must have either left it in the hammock or in an open bag and wandered off. I wonder if I’d slost it or it’d been stolen. I have no idea what happened.
That’s only one of the few unpleasant incidents that happened in the last 5 days (!). You know when shit happens it seems to happen all at once. I have already mentioned the fake dollar bills incident in a previous post, now let’s rewind a bit to New Year’s Eve when my hiking boots got stolen.
It has been a quiet night for me. I went to bed early, reading myself to sleep. There were just a couple of passengers left on the upper deck. In the middle of the night, sometime after 12 o’clock one of the guys woke me up mumbling something about being robbed. He was saying his bag has been stolen and that I should check mine. I gave it a quick glance through sleepy eyes and everything looked fine. The bags were there, safely locked to the iron pole. I got up for a bit as I couldn’t fall asleep – we were at a harbour overlooking a town’s plaza. Fireworks could still be seen here and there.
I went back to sleep while the guys talked about the stolen bag. I heard a crew member saying that it was downstairs and thought the guy had made it up. Worry-free I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning, washed up, still unsuspecting a thing. I started packing up and half way through it I realised my hiking boots were missing. My brand new, a $150 hiking shoes were stolen on New Year’s Eve.
– Fuck! – I exclaimed – My shoes have been stolen.
That’s when the guys repeated what had happened. They had seen a guy in dirty trousers and a bag come up during the night. Nobody had come on board while we were at harbour so it must have been a crew member. I ran downstairs, found the owner and demanded all crew members’ bags were searched. We went through all of them and found nothing.
– Did you fall asleep? – the owner asked.
– Of course I did! – I said, unbelieving of his question. That’s what people normally do at night, no?!
– All Peruvians are like that – he said. What a great thing to say about one’s mother land.
– I usually lock tourists’ bags in a cabin – he said – It is too dangerous to leave them on the deck. Jeez! Couldn’t you tell me earlier, possibly before I got my shoes stolen.
I was pissed off. Got off the boat in a terrible mood. ‘I hope you all burn in hell!’ I thought in rage. ‘Bloody bastards. Couldn’t you steal my sandals (cheap)?! It had to be the hiking boots.’
It was 6am, I was hungry and immigration was closed. The guy was supposed to open at 8am. People advised I knocked on the door. I banged my fist against the wooden door for nothing.
– He got drunk last night and is probably asleep in there – said passers by disapprovingly.
I waited until 8am and decided to follow people’s advice and come back later. I left agitated and frustrated thinking what a way to start the new year. I hope it doesn’t continue the same way.
I blamed others for the robberies but deep inside I couldn’t help blaming myself and myself only. I should have known better and secured my shoes properly. They were the only thing that wasn’t locked. I shouldn’t have left the iPod unattended. I have been naive and stupid and it cost me nearly $400. The feeling of being safe on the first boat has been false. Later when I discussed the incident (bragged about) with a fellow traveller we pondered about our ability to put ourselves in the locals’ places and the complete lack of their ability to put themselves in our shoes. As far as they are concerned we are rich gringos who wouldn’t miss their stolen possesions too much. Wait a minute! I didn’t grow up in a rich country or a rich family. I worked hard for my stuff and the right to travel. You have no right stealing it from me! ‘It is the lack of education’ some would claim. Hell no, it is not! I spoke to a 14 year old girl on the boat who told me they taught English at school but she didn’t want to study it because it was too difficult. ‘There are no nearby schools.’ the defenders would plead. My grandmother (God bless her!) grew up in the 30’s and 40’s. She had to walk 40km to school and back everyday, wearing a thin coat during the winter months. She was 8 years old. Both my grandparents are simple country folks and yet they taught me morals and manners. Stealing was bad and I had to throw rubbish in the trash can. I can’t excuse the Peruvians. It is not right. I left the country with mixed feelings – disappointed in the people but admiring the country’s natural beauty and what it has to offer. What a shame the two don’t match.

The Amazon: the mightiest river of all

It is some time after sunrise and I have just woken up from a decent night’s sleep. I am swinging in my cheap hammock, trying to get the dirt out from underneath my nails. It’s a lost cause because they are going to be just the same as soon as I scratch myself again. I feel like crap – I am sticky and I stink. I can smell myself. My shorts are soaked in sweat, covered in dirt and stained with mango and ink from my pen. But hell! Who cares! I am sailing down the Amazon – the mightiest river of all.

I have given up on cleanliness altogether because it just doesn’t last too long. Soon after you’ve bathed you are sticky again. Dirt seems to be in the air. But that’s not the main reason I have sucumbed to the dirt. The lack of clean water is. Sure there are showers on board but the water comes from the river. It all comes and goes into the river and I mean ALL of it. Trash and canalisation from coastal towns flows into the river as well as those of the boat. The water is brown, foamy and thick with trash. That’s the reason I haven’t showered in days. The idea of ‘washing’ myself with others’ dirt somehow just doesn’t appeal to me.

I am on board of Carlos Antonio II, which I boarded in Iquitos, Peru, which is the beginning of the Amazon river. It is my second boat and my 5th day of consecutive travelling through the jungle. I boarded Tucan in Yurimaguas a few days back and it took us 2 1/2 days to reach Iquitos down the Huallaga river. The boat had two floors and a crago section. Most passengers slept in hammocks hung on the two decks. The cows, chicken, pigs, potatos and the 70,000 eggs we carried slept on the ground floor.

When we got there on Sunday afternoon there were hardly any passengers on board and plenty of space to hang our hammocks. We were told that the boat leaves at 4pm. It was 3.45pm. At 7pm we were still there and it was clear that we were not going anywhere because the boat didn’t have enough passengers and all its cargo. We spent the night on board.

People started flowing on board the next day. They came, and came, and came…By the time we left (5pm) there was hardly any space to breathe. What we Europeans thought of as tight was a waste of space according to locals and they would stuff another two hammocks in between. You ended up being squeezed between two other people and even then people still had to sleep on the floor. Luckily, most people left halfway through the journey and I was able to move again. We made it to Iquitos at midday on the 4th day. Whether I spent time in Iquitos or boarded the next boat to Brazil depended on the boat schedule. There was a boat leaving on Saturday and another one leaving the same day. I did want to spend some time in Iquitos and check out the floating market I had read about, maybe even celebrate New Year there but I didn’t want to wait 4 days for the nexst boat. I left the same day. The boat left at 7pm which gave me enough time to do some sightseeing.

I enjoyed the boat rides in Peru – there was so much to see. I was mesmerized every time we stopped at a small harbour or passed an indigenous community. I loved the people and the way the did things. It is a completely different world out there.

The mototaxi driver who had picked me up from the port stuck with me for the whole day and took me places. It would probably have been cheaper to take separate rides but there was no getting rid of the guy. I didn’t pay too much more anyway and he made a decent guide.

We first went to confirm the boat’s departure time and buy a ticket. The touts at the port would fight (literally!) for every passenger and try to bad-talk the other boat although they were identical. It was a war, a battle field. As I walked through the maze of food stalls, people and mototaxis, men ran after me trying to touch me only because I was white. Teenage boys insisted on carrying my bags when I came back to board the boat. I laughed at first but eventually the guys got rowdy and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. We left surrounded by a cheering crowd of men.

Our next stop was a bank where I could exchange reais (Brazilian currency). I was told it’s better to do it at a bank in Iquitos instead of at the border. I had $40 with me and thought it enough to cross the border and reach an ATM. Imagine my surprise when the girl behind the counter told me that one of the 20s was fake. I had taken it out from a cash machine just before I left Panama City. She not only didn’t exchange it but also retained it in accordance to Peruvian law. I tried to explain and get it back but she was adamant. She had to keep it. I was furious. $20 would last me 3 days in Peru and she wouldn’t give it back so I could exchange it on the street. I was upset. I had to pay for something that wasn’t my fault at all. Luckily I hadn’t brought more bills with me. I looked at the other two bills I had left in the hostel and by the look of them, they are also fake. I hope I can exchange them at the border.

This small accident didn’t stop me from enjoying the Belen market. It was our next stop and the main reason I had wanted to spend time in Iquitos. It wasn’t a floating market but a floating village! The market as a matter of fact was perfectly grounded. It was the town’s streets that were underwater as the river rose (Nov-Apr). We saw exotic animals being sold – baby monkeys, s baby sloth, turtles, parrots, lizards, and even snakes. My guide got me trying different fruits – a yeallow, slimey one, a really acid one, an aguaje (similar to avocado but yellow and much smaller). We saw women making cigarettes and cigars, vendours selling exotic plants and herbs, potions, women having their hair done on the street. I even bought some agua de florecimiento that I’d use to wash myself on New Year’s Eve hoping it would bring me luck in 2010. It’s water mixed with rose petals and other flowers as well as natural perfumes. It does smell divine. If not luck it would at least help me smell a bit better.

We had lunch and my guide got me to try suri – those big, fat, white, protein filled bugs. I had the grilled, crispy one instead of the bug stew despite Johan´s attempts to convince me it was so much better. To my surprise it wasn´t that bad although I will not be trying it again.
We also got a canoe ride that took us around the sunken village. It was absolutely fascinating! I loved it and had a blast. I didn’t want to leave but it was time to take my spot on the boat before the crowds flooded.
Iquitos is where I experienced the machismo in full swing. Johan (the taxi driver) asked for a kiss instead of money after just 15 mins with me. I laughed and told him that a kiss doesn’t have a price. Throughout the day he kept mentioning it. When he took me to the boat he wouldn’t leave. Every time I asked how much I owed him he would come up with a rediculous amount and ask for a kiss. He used every opportunity to touch me and the niceties flowing out of his mouth didn’t have an end. He loved me (!), he was leaving with a broken heart, he didn’t like the other gringas, and asked why wouldn’t I stay and dance with him. That didn’t stop him from asking a rediculously high price and kept asking, begging even for more when I had paid a reasonable amount. After a while I got fed up with him and gave him an ultimatum.
– Take it or leave it! I am not giving you more money. – I declared.
He took it and left. Because of guys like him I have had to make up countless boyfriends, fiances, and vene husbands. There is always someone waiting for me or meeting me at the end of the journey. The last imagenry boyfriend is waiting for me in Brazil. It was the only way the guys on the boat would leave me alone. If I told them I was single there will be no end to it.
After Johan left I was one of two people on the deck. It was 4.30pm and there was nobody on board. I hoped it would stay that way when people started to come in. Luckily, it did stay that way and there was plenty of space for all of us when the boat left.
For the first few hours I had to put up with a guy a hammock away from me. He spat, blew his nose, threw rubbish and made disgusting noises. All that on the deck just under the hammock. I wondered how their women stand them. I guess it is not too difficult when some of them are just as bad.
It is late afternoon on the Amazon and most people have left. I have spent the day writing and eating. I am surprised by how much I eat considering I am not doing anything all day. I am already expecting my dinner served to my hammock (an upgrade from the 1st boat where we had to queue with our plastic pots like prisoners).
It is time now to get ready for my Amazon-style New Year’s celebration. It is December 31, 2009 and I am on a boat in the middle of the jungle. I have decided the Amazon river is much cleaner than the first river we were on and I am going to take my chances and shower despite the worms stories the Germans told me (the worms get under your skin and stay there). The Amazon has been an exhilarating experience. Me and the Germans stood at the tip of the boat one night gaping at the magnificent sunset wondering whether trhis is really happening. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was sailing through this fantasy land where people sing Spanish, girls look like Pocahontas and boys like Mowgli. The mystical land we have all read about in the enciclopedias our parents bought us. For many it will remain a dream. For me it came true. I am here now.
PS A different view on Amazon river travel: http://www.roadjunky.com/article/492/brazil-amazon-hell-trip