Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town.
Our first taste of the Amazon: by boat past the long Belem waterfront – a working port, barges, abandoned hulks, little darting pirogues, floating gas stations with convenience stores, occasional little shanty slums, up-river tourist boats with rows of hammocks slung in their dark interiors, occasional inlets that photograph like gritty Canalettos, then we cross the wide estuary and head up-river ourselves, through channels past waterside houses built on stilts and often brightly decorated.
The air is humid, the heat oppressive. We disembark onto a narrow boardwalk over swampy marshland and file into the jungle. There’s a bit of a community here, a few simple buildings where we sample some of the local fruits, then it’s a 90-minute trek (a lot too much for some of our number) through the brush and jungle in search of flora and fauna. I hang back, taking photos, and encounter a solemn girl of maybe nine who’s sitting on a porch holding out toward me a shining black and gold beetle the size of a golf ball. We catch up with the others and she stays with the group throughout the tour, sometimes running ahead to climb into the canopy with a couple of teen boys, sometimes disappearing, always popping up with something new to show us, a real child of the jungle. “This is probably going to be the happiest time of her life,” says Susan. (continued below)
By the time we have to catch the tender (the ship’s lifeboats do double duty) for the long ride across the harbour back to the ship the wind and tides are brisk, and the water is tossing and bumping the tender against the dock – it’s a challenge for many to actually get on, and once they’re on it’s a challenge to keep their lunch down. We hear that the tender behind us took three hours to make the crossing and a passenger was hurt. Not exactly what you think you’re signing up for. “Don’t push me! Don’t push me!” cried one elderly lady, looking so frail she might crumble, as we stumbled off the tour boat when it returned to the dock.
The rest of our visit to Brazil – Fortaleza, Natal and Recife – was, well, Brazil, of which we have never been particularly enamoured. Highlight was walking the back streets of old Natal, where we had been told not to go – just the two of us on a stroll. It’s a rundown industrial area, decaying facades, all kinds of graffiti, discarded condoms, a dead rat squished in the centre of the cobbles, and as we walk past a seafood wholesale storefront, give our usual smiling “bom dia” and are gestured in by one of the guys sitting out on the sidewalk. He takes us deep into the building, hauls open a vast reinforced door, and there’s the walk-in freezer, filled with fish, some hanging from the ceiling, some in boxes, some in untidy piles. He gestures in the direction of the fish. Are we supposed to walk in? Is this a tourist abduction? Will the ship sail on without us, leaving us to freeze with the dorado? But no. He just wants us to photograph his fish, and we part the best of friends, his warning to beware of “many ladrones in these streets” ringing in our ears.