This is the REAL Amazon! As we floated down the river, it was like being emersed in a National Geographic broadcast - the huts made of sticks & bamboo with grass roofs - the small boats tied to nearby trees - cloths suspended helter-skelter from wires - windows with absolutely no coverings with an occasional small, helpless face peering through out of curiousity. What was comical in some instances...that amidst the poverty & primitive environment, you could spot satellite dishes attached to some of the dwellings and if you looked quick enough through the open front entrance, you could also see a flatscreen color TV!
We are now 2,699 nautical miles southeast of Ft. Lauderdale, just 7 hours past the equator and docked in Belem, Brazil. The southern channel of the mouth of the Amazon lies just to the north of Belem, and as such, the city is known as the Metropolis of the Brazilian Amazon Region. Temps today were in the mid 80’s with humidity to match. One of the first things we noticed once ashore was an expansive Mercado sprawling across several city blocks. They say this marketplace is the center of local life and commerce and it is very busy every day. The array of exotic items on display was absolutely staggering – vendors pull up to the pier in various types of sea craft offering snakes, ritualistic amulets, and all sorts of other ‘everyday’ goods for sale. Much of the merchandise is so strange to the unaccustomed eye, you can only wonder about its possible purpose. One food item that caught our eye is the Mura – a fish that can grow as large as a human! Unfortunately, they clean these fish next to the sidewalks and throw their heads into the gutters – the smell was as staggering as their size. Once inside the market, it got even worse. Not only raw fish, but various cuts of beef hanging on rusty hooks swarmed with flies – the local shoppers were actually buying this meat, putting it under their arms and walking out. The smell nearly gagged both of us – I’d never seen or smelled anything like it in my life, and the local folks were just as comfortable shopping there as we are at Wal-Mart. There was also a wide variety of other products – large bags of rice, crushed corn, and other food items consumed on a regular basis. I’ve seen markets in Mexico, but nothing as graphic & disgusting as this. Of course, we acted normal out of respect for their culture and lifestyle, but it sure makes you appreciate the USA, our high health & sanitary requirements! Belem’s population is roughly 1.3M – we thought the level of poverty may only be limited to the people around the pier but we were sadly mistaken. Their dwellings are small lean-tos, shacks, crumbling cement structures with graffiti on every available surface. They have no organized garbage collection – everything is strewn on the streets or piled next to roads. We walked past an elementary school (Catholic) and the kids were on the playground during lunch hour – they were buying snacks from street vendors through the holes in a cyclone fence – the playground was littered with trash & broken glass, and there they were in their bare feet playing volleyball and other activities. They all seemed happy & content, and I guess when you’ve known no other lifestyle, this is perfectly acceptable to them – but your heart sure goes out to them! We boarded a small boat for our trip down the Amazon and it was everything advertised. Just imagine floating down a river with thick, very lush foliage – small wooden shacks on stilts with the natives gathered on their docks or peering out the windows, small boats tied to their dock, washed cloths hanging from trees – we were truly in the Amazon jungle! The boat stopped and we then went on a 2-mile hike through the jungle (with a guide) – it was extremely hot, humid, & sticky – mosquitoes were rampant (until we sprayed) and we saw giant ants, termites, and spiders as large as tarantulas, but safe as they don’t bite. During the hike, we also met two very young native boys who were climbing trees harvesting cocoa (nuts) – wearing only gym shorts, they were like something out of a Tarzan movie. We gave them each $1 – you’d think we gave them $100 as their little faces lit up with joy & appreciation! Our guide said it always rains at 3:00PM, and sure enough, at 2:58PM, the bottom fell out of the sky and it poured for 10 minutes! The cool rain felt great, but then the humidity was really bad! Once back on the boat, we each guzzled 2 ice-cold beers as we worked our way back up the river to catch a bus back to the pier. This was a very interesting, educational day – also sad when comparing culture & lifestyle. It sure makes you want to reach out and help. Our next port is Recife – 1,100 nautical miles south, and we are told it is a much cleaner city & exciting destination. So, two more days (& nights) at sea – here we go!