When I left Óbidos it was with a fresh face (figuratively – beard is now on second week) and a happy east tail wind to blow me across the narrows of the Amazon River in front of the city. Locally, the area is known as a garaganta da Amazonas – or “the throat of the Amazon” since it is the mighty river’s narrowest point – with just over a kilometer of width during the dry season. The wind kept up until I had just about made it to the other side, and then slacked off and left me floating backwards with the current towards Santarém. Obviously this meant it was time to take the sail down and load the canoe for paddling – that of course meaning putting all my stuff in the back of the canoe so that when I sit in the front to paddle, waves do not sink me. Just as I was about to do so the wind changed once again, this time coming from the southeast, albeit rather weakly – but good enough, and so I skimmed along the south bank of the Amazon River for a few hours at perhaps two knots.
Around 1600 the wind weakened to a point where, despite the fact that I was travelling at perhaps five metres per second with the wind, I was actually stopped completely, since five metres per second happened to be roughly the speed of the current at the time. And so I docked on a protruding stick and decided to try and catch some fish for dinner. As I was preparing my gill net a local appeared out of nowhere and made a short interrogation, which ended with him giving me a watermelon and wishing me luck. I cut a chunk out and munched on farinha as I waited for my net to fill with fish. The local’s dog was overtly friendly and loved to swim, and was met with harsh words from his owner when he leapt joyfully into the river and got tangled up in my net. If nothing else, at least I would have a dogfish. Upon bringing my net in, I discovered that I had caught three aracú, a pacú, and two small yellow-bellied piranhas. I promptly cleaned the fish, salted them, and put them away. The wind had picked up once more, and so I sailed for about fifteen more minutes before it died again. Rather than loading the boat for paddling and continuing on, I decided to call it a day make camp for the evening, as it was half past five and I did have some pasta to cook. I was still on the watermelon benefactor’s land, and since he was out fishing in his canoe, too, I asked him if it was all right if I made camp in the nearby jungle. He assured me that it was no problem. After removing my gear and pushing the canoe up onto the half sand, half mud beach, I brought my things into the jungle (about 30 metres from the river’s edge) in four trips, not including a trip to fill my big pot with river water. The pasta cooked quickly as did the fish, and I had an early night and went to bed around 2000. I must note that my decision to buy a litre of gasoline in Óbidos turned out to be an excellent one, as fires in the jungle were now accomplished in a matter of seconds, as opposed to the up-to-an-hour that the infuriating search for dry tinder in tropical rainforest would oftentimes take.
The next morning dawned calm and absolutely windless, and so I loaded the boat for paddling and set off upriver in a good mood, after my morning coffee and more watermelon – the latter which I ate until almost bursting, since I feared it would soon spoil in the heat. After paddling for about an hour I came to one of the many riverside fishing communities in the area. As I was paddling by, a medium-sized boat and it’s occupants, whom were repairing what seemed to be miles of gill netting by hand, signaled for me to come over. I did so and proceeded to enjoy a few hours of chatting and a lovely lunch and half-hour nap in the shade.
The wind, it seemed, was playing games with me that day – for while I was on the boat eating it blew merrily from the east and everybody commented profusely on how excellent this was for me. However, as soon as I weighted the canoe for sailing, rigged the sail, and attempted to head upriver, it promptly died – not even having the decency to ruffle my sail. And so, with the whole world watching me and probably thinking something like that guy’ll never make it to Manaus, I paddled back to shore, emptied the water out of my boat (I have a small but persistent leak on the port side of my bow almost on the waterline that only really leaks when she is poorly weighted for paddling), weighted for paddling, and paddled off, chattering jovially with my boat friends as I passed about the uselessness wind in general. Before I left, the net menders warned me of what they called praia grande – or “big beach” – and that as soon as I arrived to it that it was important that I passed on the outside and not the inside. I assured them that I would do so, and spent the next three or so hours trying the figure out what the bloody hell that meant. As evening came I passed an abandoned cement house along the side of the river that had two massive male iguanas guarding its doors and enormous baoba trees growing around it. I thought about camping here but decided that it would be better to try and make a few more miles before night set in. I stopped around six in a different fishing community and decided to camp for the night in the nearby jungle. As I was preparing my gill net for dinnertime, a local smelling strongly of cachaça came up and informed me that it was, ahem, proibido to fish here. I took a quick look around me at the at least four (that I could see) gill nets within my line of sight and asked why that was. He told me it was because I was desconhecido – a stranger, and basically that they didn’t take kindly to strangers in those parts. And so I explained what I was up to and showed him my passport – and at last he reluctantly agreed that I should be able to stay the night in the area, and that he supposed that it would be okay if I fished a little bit. I thanked Sr. Suspicious and set out my gill net and left it as I carried my gear to the jungle, set up camp, and gathered firewood. When I went to retrieve it at just before sundown I found I had quite a lot of work ahead of me – for in the roughly 45 minutes my net had sat in the river it had snagged no less than eighteen red-bellied piranhas, four pacú, three aracú, a yellow-bellied piranha, and a catfish as long as my forearm. Due to the sheer quantity of fish I had before me I threw everything that I could remove from the net without mortally wounding back into the river. However, I still ended up with quite a bit more than I could eat: eight red-bellied piranhas, three aracú, and the catfish. Also, I still had a salted yellow-bellied piranha and a pacú leftover from the previous day’s fishing. I sat on the beach cleaning fish well into darkness, and suffered the evening onslaught of mosquitoes with grudging acceptance. That evening I made rice and fried up the catfish, one of the aracú, the previous day’s yellow-bellied piranha and pacú, and one of the red bellys. The rest I salted and put away, thinking that at least I would not have to stop early for fishing for the next two days or so.
The next morning I made coffee with chocolate and chatted with a friendly aged local who came up to my campsite and talked dryly of river life and his nearby cattle ranch. I asked him about the praia grande and what that meant, the business about passing on the outside. He told me yes, don’t pass on the inside, it’s too shallow. “Even for a canoe?” I said, unbelieving. “Hm, maybe a canoe can pass, but I know it’s very dry this time of year…” After squinting at my blurry printed Google Map for a little while I figured out that the praia grande was in fact a large island in the Amazon River perhaps twenty kilometres before the city of Jurutí. There were two ways around this island: the south side (or “inside”) and the north side (“outside”). The southern route was massively shorter and not exposed to the openness of the main Amazon River, and seemed the obvious choice. Perhaps boats couldn’t pass this time of year, but on my map it seemed plenty big enough for a small canoe like mine. Now that I had solved the mystery of the big beach, I set off paddling (windless yet again) upriver towards this so-called praia grande. After about an hour the wind decided to make a favourable appearance and I happily weighted my boat for sailing and enjoyed several hours of very decent sail time with an almost direct tailwind. After perhaps an hour of I noticed what seemed to be the island emerging out of the distance to my right. It did not, however, look like any kind of beach I’d ever seen. In fact, it looked more like a large marsh. Regardless of its appearance, I would not have to look at it for long, since I would be taking the shortcut and passing on the inside. Several passing fishermen on motorized canoes warned me to not pass on the inside, but I resolved to attempt doing just that and ignored their warnings, thinking there must be some way to get my tiny canoe through there; I mean it looked wide on the map. I sailed with an ever-stronger tailwind into the shortcut, ignoring the warnings of passing locals of aquí não vara, here you can’t pass – surely there was a way. After another hour or so of very fast sailing (maybe five knots) I promptly wished I had heeded the warnings of – well, of everybody. No, not even my canoe was going to make it through there. There was a good five kilometres of dry land to pass before I could see on the horizon – just barely – the continuing portion of the river that went towards Jurutí. Thanks to my hard headedness, I had just lost about half a day, easily. Perhaps an entire day. As penance I was forced to paddle for three and a half hours into the wind with no current to help me (closed off, remember) back to the east point of the praia grande. That’s what I get for not listening!
I had seen, so far, very little beach on this island. What I saw instead was lots of marshy grass and what seemed to be an orgy of birds, whom were not at all amused with my arrival and squaked indignantly and dive bombed me for a good hour until I was too far away for them to bother with anymore. Upon arrival to the point I decided it was a good time for a lunch break and decided to eat some dried, powdered fish mixed with farinha that I had brought with me from Óbidos. However, as it turned out, the point of the island was not the best place to stop for lunch – this due to the fact that the mud was actually quick mud and I sank up to my waist in it as soon as I got out of the canoe. Undeterred and hungry, I resolved to lunch there anyways – I had already stopped and was already out of the boat – and was forced to crawl on three’s (the fourth hand carried my lunch and water) like a crocodile through the mud for a good fifteen metres until the ground solidified somewhat. There I sat, covered in black, stinking mud under a blazing afternoon sun and ate dry powered fish washed down with muddy river water. And the birds came back to dive bomb me some more.
Upon rounding the point I found that at least the wind was now once again in my favour; I weighted for sailing (more troublesome than usual – anything is more complicated when you have to do it while waist-deep in mud) and enjoyed a much-needed two hours of pleasant sailing until nearly sundown, where I docked on the large beach that had finally decided to show itself. The downsides of camping on beaches, for me, are the fact that there is nowhere to hang my hammock. Since I do not have a tent this means I must pass the night with basically no protection from the bugs. Bugs, on the beach? Oh yes. Worse than in the jungle, in fact – due largely to the fact that all around that beach is marsh with stopped, stagnant water – the perfect breeding ground for the little bastards. Fortunately I located an old dead tree nearby, no doubt washed here during the flood season, which at least provided me with firewood with which to prepare dinner. I intended on frying some of the leftover piranhas and aracú – but it seemed that I would learn a lesson in fish preservation with the lives of these fish, all of which were quite spoiled and stinking. I figure I should have not left them all in the same bag together – and perhaps went a little too easy on the salt. Fortunately I had a can of sardines for occasions such as this one, as well as leftover rice from the day before, which I heated and ate in the darkness while crouching in that area where the mosquitos don’t come due to the campfire smoke. After that it was time for bed; my beach bed is constructed as follows: raincoat, hammock, me, and on top of everything, my mosquito netting, used as sort of a blanket. This, however, is not so efficient when it comes to keeping the bugs off you, since in every place the netting rests upon your skin the bugs have no trouble at all biting through it. Still, it was better than nothing. As it turned out I would not have to worry too much about bugs that evening, since a nice nighttime breeze blew from the northeast for a good hour, keeping the insects hunkering down in the stinking marsh where they belonged. But every yin has a yang, and with that breeze came rain. I myself stayed dry, since I layed my sail out on top of my bed, but some of my other things got a bit wet and I had to shovel quite a bit of water out of my canoe the next morning. It was as I was doing this that I discovered that my boat had suffered an invasion during the night; in the roughly ten hours that she lay pushed up on the beach near some reeds, my canoe was taken over by hordes of little yellow ants, whom had somehow managed to construct Ant Tokyo overnight in between the struts of my canoe. I tried to wash them out but it seemed the ants were determined to stay; I would need to get some ant poison somewhere pretty soon, or they would probably eat all the sealant out of my canoe and render her extremely leaky. The tailwind from the day before continued into the morning, and I sailed around the rest of the island and made it back to the south bank before 1100, enjoying the company of a pod of river dolphins whom had been following me since my previous day’s failed shortcut attempt. I could tell that it was the same dolphins because there were several distinct charactars whom I consistantly recognized; these dolphins I gave names and talked to whenever I ran out of songs I knew the words to. There was one dolphin who had a large chunk missing from his fin – probably from a propeller – whom I called Chunky. Another made a loud whistling shound every time he came up for air – Whistles. Scar was covered in scars and liked to surface very close to the boat; The Two Jacks were small, completely grey, and would surface very quickly, always in unison, before diving back down; Wheezy Fart made a strange, loud, wheezing fart-like sound every time he came up for air; King Louis and Queen Ana were a large pair, one solid grey and one solid pink, whom usually stayed at least thirty yards from the boat, surfacing slowly and regally before sliding smoothly back down without hardly even making a splash; Psyco-Groupie-Cocaine-Crazy had a habit of leaping entirely out of the water and making huge splashes, sometimes not even taking a breath because I think he was just doing it because he was full of energy, not because he actually wanted to breathe. So as you can see, while I was alone in my boat – I never travelled in solitude.
With each point of land on the horizon I expected to see Jurutí on the other side – and yet, the city refused to appear. I navigated through several channels which I feared would be dry like my last “shortcut” – but happily they were still passable. It was in one of these channels late that afternoon where I met three guys from….Texas. In kayaks. They had come from Peru and were on an expedition to paddle the Amazon from source to sea. West, who seemed to be the leader of the group, looked kind of like Allen Grant from Jurassic Park and paddled a single seat kayak which had obviously been shipped from the U.S.; the other two were in a tandum kayak and paddled with expensive-looking carbon fibre racing canoe paddles. I would later learn that they are professional canoe racers, and West is also a professional kayaker of some sort, who has been interviewed for Canoe and Kayak magazine several times.
I gave the group a “river report” – that’s what they called it – and they were happy to hear of the strong currents I had been fighting since leaving Óbidos. Ah, the subtle differences between “up” and “down…” West asked me what kind of navagation equipment I used and I showed him my Google Map. He asked me what kind of SAT phone I used and I showed him my VIVO chip $10 dollar local cell phone – which had three bars, by the way. West and his group were much better equipped than I, it seemed, and he informed me that he called home every night by SAT phone- I shuddered to think of the bill such a habit must run up. I believe he even blogs by SAT phone! I didn’t even know you could do that. He also had GPS mounted right on his kayak, a SPOT, a Go-Cam – with which he filmed me and my boat for awhile – and probably many other cool gadgets hidden away inside the kayak that I did not see. Also, he had a lot of instant coffee – instant coffee sponsered him, apparently. Interestingly enough he would be writing something for National Geographic – so for you subscribers back home, keep an eye out for an article written by West Hanson, long distance kayaker and general badass. When I asked the group how far it was to Jurutí, they asked me “What’s a Jurutí?” Apparently the GPS did not display that information. While I was very pleased to meet the kayakers and respected them a ton for the trip they were taking, I was a little suprised about how little they knew about the areas they were travelling through – outside of the details about the river itself, of course, about which they knew basically everything there was to know. But local cities and towns were just another stop for them – sometimes not even a stop, just something to pass – while for me they were sometimes whole chapters of my life. I understood, of course – they had a schedule and a budget to keep to, I’m sure – but I wondered if they knew what they were missing out on. Anyways, I explained to them that Jurutí was the next town up ahead; they informed me that it was “just around the corner.” Great! I bid farewell to the expeditioneers and they faded off downriver as I docked quickly and weighted for paddling since the wind had died. Again. I resolved to make it to Jurutí that day, even if it meant paddling into the night – but it seemed that “just around the corner” for a streamlined racing kayak heading downriver is quite a ways for a 500 lb wooden fishing canoe fighting the current; after an hour of paddling I still did not see the lights of the city and so decided that it would be better to stop and call it a night and make it to the city the following day, when it was light outside and much easier to make new friends. As it was dark out (around 2000) I decided to stop in a community lighted by the sound of a rumbling gas generator. After tying up my canoe to the small dock I hiked up the steep riverbank to scope out the area. I walked up to a nearby house and asked about camping spots in the area, but the owner shined his flashlight directly into my face and told me to go away as he shooed his family into the house. Feeling rather mistreated, I returned to my canoe and paddled about 200 yards further downriver, pushed my canoe up onto a small mud bank and decided to put my hammock up between two trees up above on the high bank. I had just finished doing so when I saw the lights of three flashlights heading my way, coming from the village. As they approached, a voice shouted out “O qué tá fazendo ai??” – what are you doing there? – and not in a friendly way. “I’m going to sleep.” The group closed in on me and I saw that one had a shotgun pointed at me. Here we go. What followed was a rant from the locals that I was a stranger, and I could be a robber or a murderer and, blah blah blah paranoia, think of the children. I sighed and tried explaining to them about my adventure, but they didn’t want to hear it, and informed me that I wasn’t going anywhere until they had the police come over to, quote, “check me out.” “Whatever. Call them, see if I care,” I said, more than a little annoyed at all the suspicion that had been directed towards me lately. “I’ll wait.” And I did, sitting down at the base of a tree, and even getting a start on my dinner (dried fish powder), just to show them how much I didn’t care that the police were coming. The man with the shotgun tried to get ahold of the police. “Hello? Hello? Jesus?” he said, after four or five phone calls trying to get ahold of the man. “Man, I’ve been trying to call you, there’s a strange person who’s showed up here in the community. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know, he says he’s in a canoe. He wants to go to Manaus. No, he doesn’t even have a motor, he’s just paddling I think.” He fingered the barrel of his shotgun as Jesus the Cop gave what sounded like a chuckle from the other end of the line. “Yeah. I don’t know, somewhere really far. Anyways, can you come over here and check him out? We’ve got him over here under the mango tree. Yeah, cause you know, the children, man. Okay. We’ll wait for you.” He hung up. “The cops are coming for you, stranger.” “The anticipation’s killing me,” I said, crunching loudly a particularly large granule of farinha. And so we waited. And waited. And waited. After nearly an hour Officer Jesus was still absent from the scene – no doubt busy preaching to the wise men in the temple – and the group was getting impatient. Sr. Shotgun tried several more times to get ahold of Jesus by phone but was getting no answer – apparently heaven has zero bars. I suggested he try praying – but he didn’t get the joke. Eventually, the men decided to just send me away, and so I loaded my things back into my canoe and set off paddling towards Jurutí. Again. “Make sure you go far away,” said Sr. Shotgun. “Or we’ll call the police again.” “Right, because that worked so well last time,” I muttered to myself as the lights of their flashlights dissapered around a bend. I ended up stopping about two clicks further down and sleeping in the jungle like usual; I didn’t even know why I bothered trying the communities at night. So much suspicion; I didn’t get it. The next morning I arrived to Jurutí around 1000 – by paddle, since the wind was just teasing me with little gusts followed by large gaps of stillness. I had conqured another section of the Amazon River, and it was time for a well-deserved break. I docked my canoe under a big cement pier and went off looking for something to eat that wasn’t fish.
Total Distance: 118 km (73.3 mi) 4.5 days.