Hoteis OK had been our home in Rio. The staff became our friends. We were their only Canadian customers...their only English speaking patrons. We were their first and only moto customers. They all extended a personal welcome when we returned. They all extended a personal goodbye when we left.
Eduardo, the bellman was studying English. He surprised me the first morning of our return with a "Good morning Robert." I clapped him on the back in congratulations. When I left, he stepped forward, extended his hand and said, "Have a good trip." He had been practising that one. I pumped his hand vigorously, fired the twin and with my best "Royal Wave" I departed.
I would miss them all, from the attendants at the parking lot to the entire staff and manager of the Hoteis OK. I especially wanted to say goodbye to Paulo but he was on days off.
Rio was simmering in the 35C heat. The smog descended like a thick fog. You could feel it. You could see it. You could taste it. It blanketed everything for a sixty mile radius. It parted as the bike moved through it and folded closed behind us.
Four lanes merged into one. The traffic snarled. The bike cooked and I baked. Finally I was through it. The humid 35 C air felt cool at 100 kmph. I moved out of Rio, across the ponte (bridge), through the suburbs and slums and out into the country. The road swung inland cutting through yet another variation on the scenery theme.
The tropical, densely treed landscape south of Rio gave way to nude hills and nude beaches further north...an unlikely combination but one much to my liking.
I missed my turn...or not. I donīt know. I didnīt see the intersection but the road swung coastal. Maybe the map was wrong. It didnīt matter. It was going in the same general direction...north.
I chased it to the sea. It followed a rige and then a valley. We crossed through sugar cane fields with their putrid stench...a cross between rotting meat and some other horrible, undefinable smell.
The heavy truck traffic ground the road into ruts. Hundreds of trucks rolled along at a snailīs pace forming a seemingly unending train to infinity. The thermometer climbed to 39 C. I stopped to refuel and cool down. The line-up plodded by as I rested. All of my hard work wasted.
I turned off of the main road and headed for the coast again, this time with purpose. Immediately I could feel the cooling effect. The thermometer plunged 5 degrees Celcius in as many kilometers.
Marataizes was my home...a small fishing village come tourist town...it had a beach. While scouring the fish stalls I met Alfredo. He was a career fisherman with a sense of humour to match.
"Where are you from," he asked.
A brief pause, and then he announced "Iīm from Brasil."
"No way," I kibitzed. "Brasil!!"
"Yes," he nodded, and we both laughed.
The daily catch was in and he busied himself gutting and skinning fish and splitting fish heads for soup. His well worn cutting block was a testament to years of faithful service. His cutting knife, honed into a crescent moon shape told the same story.
Marataizes was a two horse town, but five of them were hitched out front of Maria Mariaīs saloon and cafe. Their owners had ridden into town for a few beers, that evening.
Further north of Rio the population thinned out and the country opened up before me. Broad expanses of sugar cane fields and coffee fincas stretched to the horizon. A more basic lifestyle became evident. People had less and lived with less. There was a sense of poorness. The prosperity of the industrial south disappeared. The traffic thinned out and the roads became better.
Eucylaptis tree farming was happening on a massive scale. Ready to harvest in only seven years the perfectly straight rows of trees were easily removed. Triple trailer semis hauled them to the nearest mill where they were reduced to cellulose and then exported to Europe for further and final processing.
As is typical of countries that have neither the monetary resources nor the technology, foreign countries provide the sevice but at a high cost. Brasil gets a few jobs for planting and harvesting, a little technology and a few more jobs for the first stage of production. The raw product is then shipped overseas for secondary and tertiary processing with the higher technology and additional jobs. The high mark-up that goes with the finished product is kept by the technology provider.
Brasil gets a little, the European multi-national in this case, gets a lot. The pretense of industry is there without the real benefit. The money is in the finished product not the feedstock. A few jobs are created, a few officials at the top get kick-backs for "Inking the Deal" and little changes for the common man. The cycle of poverty, unemployment and under-education continues unabated. It cannot be broken. There is no trickle-down. It is fully and completely top-end loaded. It provides the political pretense of industry and growth without benefit, but with the evils of corruption and graft. It is a cycle that cannot be broken for that is the mantle that foreign investment works under...that is the fuel for the World Engine. There is only the spectre of aid as the raping and pillaging continues into the 21st Century.
Until the disease of corruption is removed, the concept of foreign aid and industry is wasted. Africa is living proof of that...living proof of the trillions upon trillions of dollars in aid and investment that have all but been Pissed into the Black Hole of Corruption. Heaven help us all when the raping and pillaging stops for lack to places to ruin.
Zimbo Tropical was tucked away on Isla Itaparica in Aratuba.
Philippe from Old France had ended his wanderlust here. He had fallen in love with the country, the land, the climate and at least one of the people. With his local wife, Sueli he had built up nine (9) isolated cabins in his own creation of a tropical paradise.
Heavily planted with banana trees, palms, ferns and dense tropical foliage you could live in isolation without fear of peering into your neighbourīs business. Semi-tame, miniature monkeys moved about the canopy or at eye level if you had something to eat.
Zimbo Tropical was only 35 km from Salvador and its 2.5 Million people but it could have been a million miles away. It was easy to add days into my program to relax in the tropical ambience. The bathtub warm waters of the Atlantic were less than a 5 minute stroll away.
But Salvador beckoned. It was a Love/Hate relationship. It was a Colonial Gem that came with the stigma of crime and a large, black underemployed population. It was the African Soul of Brasil. It grew with the slave trade...that trade in bodies wretched from their Mother Country, packed onto slave ships and chartered to the New World...to Salvador.
Over 10 Million were shipped to the Americas over the 300 year period from 1550 to 1850. 3.5 Million came to South America. From the mines of Potosi, Bolivia to the coastal hell of Brasil many came but few survived.
They worked the banana plantations, the sugar cane fields and the mines. Those riches combined with the gold and diamonds of Diamantina flowed through the ports of Salvador to Europe and fueled a religious frenzy the likes of which the world has not witnessed before or since. A total of 365 churches, cathedrals and basilicas were reportedly erected, one for every day of the year. Some plazas had three and four such constructions, packed side by side and cheek to jowl.
The Carmelites, the Franciscans, the Catholics, the Jesuits...they were all here competing for Godīs attention, erecting not just stone boxes to house the sinners but rather artistic monuments smothered in idolatry and gold. Gold, GOld, GOLD!! The walls literally dripped with excess. The vows of chastity and poverty long forgotten as religious fervour was replaced with pagan pageantry.
In their quest to populate the New World with Portugese genes even the priests openly pursued the acts of procreation. Some even kept mistresses within the confines of the Church. One Bishop reportedly wrote: "I feel that I am on the edge of Soddom and Gomorrah and there is naught I can do about it."
And still the slaves came. And still the slaves died. Pelourinho, the whipping post, was where they were brought for sale and beat into submission while awaiting the autioneers gavel. The neighbourhood still exists today but the post is long gone...destroyed, broken, burned and buried in the quest to destroy the memories. But the past can never be destroyed or forgotten. The memories are too severe...too unforgettable...too unforgiveable.
Then the sugar market collapsed, the gold and diamond mines dried up and the slaves won their freedom. It is almost as if in protest of all the pain and suffering and wasted lives they have rebelled against the society that brought them here. They have not worked a day since and continue in that fashion today, contributing to the stigma that is Salvador...Black Africa in the New World!
Salvador is built on the folded grid, bent spoke pattern where there are no parallel or straight streets in the entire layout. It is Old World, Portugese planning at its best, unsurpassed, even in Rio. Added into the mix are one-way streets diverging into infinity.
It was with this chaotic thought that I disembarked the ferry. I could see the "Old Town" from where I stood but could I get there from here?
I had barely touched Terra Firma when my guide materialized before me. Did he have a premonition or had he received a call? It did not matter. I hired him on the spot.
I volunteered the names of some hotels I had selected that sounded promising. The first one was Hotel Convento do Carmo. It had a charming name and a pretentious setting and an undisclosed price since it was new on the market. We navigated the maze of hilly streets, lanes and alleyways until I questioned whether my guide was leading me off to a Sacrifical Salvadoran Slaughter or truly taking me to my destination. His Honda 125 easily outdistancing me as he zigged and zagged through the chaotic frenzy of cars, trucks and minivans and navigated through two foot gaps.
Finally, the pristine majesty of Hotel Convento do Carmo loomed before me. This was no $50 hotel I could tell. The bellhops stood at the ready in their pressed black suits and starched linen shirts. Not one to be intimidated by excess, I parted the crowd and walked to reception in my full riding suit, the cool air-conditioned room saving me from heat exhaustion and collapse.
The rich definitely live different and today I would not share that excess with them. A single room was 1200 Reals but I could have it for only 800 R. Truly a bargain I would have liked to take, but not today. Back on the road and half an hour later I had my poor manīs room that was perhaps better suited for my program.
I warmed slowly to Salvador. In my escorted driving tour of Cidade Alta I saw many contradictions. People flooded the streets in cars and on foot. That provided a sense of security. But, the uneven cobblestone streets amidst the decaying architecture and derelect blacks easily removed any sense of confidence I had gained. There was an untidy, unkempt, insecure feel to the whole area, arrested in part by the highly visible Tourist Police presence. My mind calculated my options as I processed the data. I would stay one day at least.
My guided walking tour totally upset the data I had collected and collated on my riding tour. At street level the same flaws were evident, but the grandeur and beauty of the city opened up before me. It is neither possible, nor practical to iron out 450 years of growth and destruction, wear and tear, decay and neglect to make a city presentable. The cracked mortar showing through the freshly painted stucco added character. The neglect and decay mingled with the restored added a sense of realism to the scene. The grandeur and majesty of manīs creations mingled with his pagan erections to his servient gods added a surreal flavour to the ancient, urban scene. Decaying men lied amongst ruined foundations in stark contrast to the brilliant restorations and hip hop tourists whisking through the scene in a Dali-esque collision between the two worlds.
The Blacks ruled the night. The Whites ruled the Blacks. But who ruled the Whites?
I found my first scones today.
I walked into the room and scanned my surroundings. There nestled in the corner was a group of scones. I almost overlooked them, but there could be no mistake. They were definitely scones. I donīt know who brought them here...the British I presume. I managed to put three of them out of their misery before I moved on.
The Service Stations here have definitely put the service back in Service Station. They pump the gas. They give you a discount for VISA. If you need some air they pump the air. They use a digital air pump. Just set the required air pressure and hook up the hose. The machine does the rest. There is no need to check it with a pressure gauge...no need to add or subtract air...it is exactly right every time...how very civilized.
Normally Service Stations provide a complimentary cup of coffee or glass of water. On one particularly hot day I was given a cup of ice cream. At the last Service Station the young lady attendant filled my tank, offered my a glass of water and then spotted my empy 5 liter water jug strapped to the bike. She filled it for free. Now thatīs service.
The venerable Volkswagon...the peopleīs car, the gift of the Frueher, lives on into eternity. Even though it is no longer in production Brasil has revitalized the BUG. They sell plastic bodied KIT CARS using the VW drivetrain. Transformed into Dune Buggies they have become an all important component of the Yuppie lifestyle, especially here on the northern coast where sea and sand merge into huge dunes, and life is easy for some at least. Modernized with fuel injection and electronic ignition it has become a reliable and necessary component of beach life.
They are always scratching their balls. Just like baseball players, whenever they get a spare moment the hand drops down and they spend a few minutes massaging those puppies, just like it was the most natural thing in the world to do...perhaps it is. Try it, you might like it.
Way back when, a couple of weeks ago, Sandy and I were checking into a hotel. In my best Portugese I asked the room rate and then with my practiced phrase I asked if I could see the room first. All I received was a blank stare in return. After my third attempt with no success Sandy had had just about enough. "Give me the F---ing Key. I want to see the room," she almost shouted. The clerk sprang into action and moments later we were on our way. I am glad the room was to her liking.
Motorcycle tires are out there in all shapes and sizes...you just need to find them. Today was the day. I spotted a shop with some BIG bikes in the show room. I did a 'U' Turn and pulled up front. After exchanging pleasantries and reviewing the trip with them, it was time to re-direct their attention to MY needs. They didnīt sell tires. Sooo, could they please make a few phone calls to see who had the tire I needed? Carlos stepped to the plate and in no time had located a Michelin Anakee. He even offered to buy it through the shop so that I could save an additional 15%. Now thatīs service. 15% of 530 Reals is a good saving.
OK, could Carlos give me directions to the store. No!! We would take the wheel off here and he would drive me to the shop so I could buy the tire. Michelin tires are sold through the Michelin Distributor who sells mostly car tires...easy huh, and sensible too. They however, didnīt mount tires so we were off to another shop that Carlos used. The mounting machine at this shop was broken so the Owner put the wheel in his car and drove to his friendīs shop to get the tire mounted, while we waited. Now thatīs service.
Back at the moto store I took Carlos and his wife out for Churrasco (barbeque buffet) while someone else washed and waxed my bike. When I returned it looked cleaner than new. The soap and cleaners they use down here are just incredible. They remove everything but the paint. The cost of all of this service and attention...nothing!! Simply incredible...just the cost of lunch. I am glad that I could at least contribute that much...well, and a CANADA pin.
July 28, 2006 was a memorable day for Brasil. That was the day they became self sufficient in oil...an honorable achievement considering all of their reserves are offshore.
I had a 1/2 chicken for dinner the other day. I had conjured up a mental image of a nicely prepared chicken breast with thigh attached, juices running out as I cut into it, potatoes and salad. I received a plate full of chicken parts cleaved into submission. Broken bones stuck up out of the meat which had been fried to desert dryness. So much for memories.
When I talked to people, especially those at the service stations they returned the same phrase..."You have a lot of courage." Initially I took this to heart and was intimidated by the fact that everyone made the same statement. I took it to mean that Brasil was unsafe to travel in. I pondered the statement. I measured the risks. Finally I had the answer. I am convinced they were referring to the entire trip...To travel South America alone, on a motorcycle. With that conclusion I felt more at ease with my program and moved on to the next refilling station.
Churrasco. You see the signs everywhere. They come in a variety of forms but Carlos showed me the best. You pick your salad and condiments from a salad bar. Then a series of waiters work their way through the restaurant with fresh barbequed parts on a skewer...every cut of beef imaginable, pork, chicken, chicken hearts, etc. etc. When you see something you like the waiter cuts you off a piece or two or three. Eat as much as you want but eat all you take. We did! Not bad for $6.00.
Bony Fish. More often than not I end up with a complete fish on my plate, head and all. Then you have to pick your way through the mess removing bones and fins and assorted body parts as you try to consume the best parts. They seem content with this technique but I much prefer a filet. The trouble is the most interesting sauces and methods of preparation seem to apply only to the fish and not to the fish filets.
Perhaps the sign of a 3rd World country is the fact that they always seem to have trouble with pipes and wires...plumbing and electrical wiring. In almost every country now, I have had at least one room where there are no traps on the sinks or the floor drains have been hooked up to the sewer vent without traps. I stayed in a 2 year old place the other day and it suffered from the same problem. They still havenīt got it figured out yet.
Cocoa... Kaa-Cow is how they pronounce it down here. They should know, they grow it and harvest it.
Having not seen a Cocoa Plant before I found the experience rather interesting. It is actually a tree that will only thrive and produce harvestable fruit in a shade environment. Therefore a Cocoa Tree is a secondary level in a rainforest ecosystem. It must be within the forest to thrive.
Cocoa grows as a large oblong fruit, about the size of an elongated soft ball. Each fruit grows separately as a single projection from the trunk or branch and hangs from a stem. Many are attached to a single tree.
Research is developing fruits double the normal size and of varying sweetness and color. Cross-breeding with different plant species also produces some unusual hybrids not yet in commercial production. Over 2,000 people are employed in the CEPLAC complex, from labourers for planting and harvesting to scientists working in Research and Development.
The Cocoa Pod is a thin-shelled fruit which when cracked open yields a cluster of 30 or more oblong seeds about the size of a cashew nut. They are coated in a white, slimy milk which is sweetly addictive when sucked off of the seed. The seed at this stage is not edible.
Commercially the shell is cracked open and the seeds and milk are allowed to ferment in vats for 7-10 days. A sweet liquer is the result. The seeds are then removed from the vat and placed on large grids to sun dry. After drying they are crushed to produce the cocoa powder which is then sweetened and blended to taste. The raw, dried cocoa is not unlike baking cocoa and alot of the local people prefer that taste to the sweetened, sugared flavour of contemporary chocolate as we know it.
In 1998 Brasil lost its world status as a cocoa producer. A virus decimated the crops as it raged unchecked through the cocoa fields. Recovery has been slow as the Philippines were quick to capitalize on the loss.
The CEPLAC Research Facility consisting of roughly 760 hectares studies the viruses and infections to try to be ready with a remedy when the next epidemic occurs. In the meantime Brasilian Cocoa struggles to regain its foothold in the World Market.
The CEPLAC facility with its large land holdings also provides a sanctuary for birds and is a center for studying and protecting the two species of sloth found in Brasil.
Yet another cleaved chicken bites the dust. That makes two in a row. I have to start eating in higher class joints...perhaps tomorrow.
I had been riding the lowland and coastal frontage for almost two months now. Pretty much all of the time since I and we had left the state of Minas Gerias and headed for the Foz, returned to Rio and headed north for Belem, elevations had characteristically remained in the less than 1,000 foot range and more often than not in the 300ft and less range.
Now, here in the state of Ceara an escarpment loomed before me. I spiralled upwards from the parched lowlands at a few hundred feet to 2,800 feet. The late afternoon temperature dropped 10 degrees to 26 C. I welcomed the relief. Parque Nacional de Ubajara was my destination.
The caves of Ubajara were not remarkable but rather normal, as I had suspected. However, not willing to pass up on a good prospect I gave it a try. The location however was spectacular, much better than the attraction itself. The teleferico (cable car) to and from the caves was also and intimidating experience especially with the gusting cross-wind.
The host of the Pousada, where I spent the night, offered an interesting side trip on my way back to the highway. I accepted, but probably misunderstood the instructions or went to the wrong falls. After about 30 minutes the road dead ended at some falls which were unremarkable. I had understood that the road would continue and connect with the main highway.
At the falls I approached an older gentleman to see if he could confirm my suspicions. Intimidated by my poor Portugese he volunteered the assistance of his daughter who spoke perfect English. It turns out she was married to Stan and they live in Lethbridge, Alberta. Stan is from Lethbridge. They were vacationing with her parents who live in Fortaleza. What was looking like a wrong turn had some unexpectedly, pleasant results.
On the highway to Natal I met Eric. He was from Cordoba, Argentina and in my brief encounter I received a paraphrased summary of his life...past, present and future. He was riding an aging 2-Stroke twin, 250cc or so, heavily laden and moving north for the Amazon. The blue smoke from the oil-rich mixture almost passed him as he plodded along at 70 kmph. Any faster he explained and he would get detonation at these low, sea level elevations. He had changed the plugs and the jets to no avail and so settled on this compromise of speed and rpm.
He had liquidated his assets to finance the trip. All of his worldly possessions were contained within the bike and its contents. He would have to work in Venezuela he volunteered as he would be out of money by then. In the meantime life was fine except for the temperment of his bike.
I indicated I was getting off of the highway at the next town and heading for the more relaxing pace of a coastal secondary highway. My eyes followed him down the road as he disappeared in the cloud of blue smoke that was his constant companion. I finished my water break and checked my maps before continuing. My mount was looking rather "top drawer" compared to his. An hour later I passed him on the coastal highway, forewarned of his presence by the blue cloud announcing his passing.
I had an intruder in my room the other night...actually two. A flash of movement caught my eye at the edge of the sink. Not sure what it was, I peered underneath. Hiding beneath the lip of the sink was a tiny tree frog, dark green in color and looking quite contented with his lot.
Early the next morning I tugged on the roll of toilet paper. It felt like it had a heavy counter-weight attached. Then as I overcame the inertia the roll spun forwards. My eye caught the flash of something attached to the roll and I released it and instinctively sprang backwards, expecting a cockroach or some other terrible beast, more frightful in its appearance than deadly. There clinging to the paper was a bright orange tree frog, his suction cup toes firmly attached to the paper as he rode out his wild ride.
At the Parque Hotel Siete Cidades I had still yet another visitor. Returning to my room after supper I settled on the edge of the bed to do some paperwork. A flash of movement caught my eye. I followed it along the edge of the wall where it meets the floor. It was a rat! This place was built in 2001. I had picked it over the older hotel because I had expected it would be rodent free.
I hurried out to get the bell boy/waiter/receptionist. He returned with his mop, which looked more like a witch's broom, and squeezed the life out of the pest. Then he whisked it out of the door, onto the balcony and into the night. Together we checked the room. The rat had probably entered through a loose board in the bathroom ceiling. I kept that door closed with the light on for the rest of the night. "Sorry", was his parting word as he departed to continue with his other duties.
Parque National de Sete Cidades. You donīt have to be in a drug induced stupor to imagine that these natural rock formations are the ruins of ancient cities but it sure helps. That is the conclusion Erich van Däniken came to after visiting the site. "Destroyed and burned by aliens some 15,000 years ago."
Hallucinagens, a wild imagination, a publisher and an audience willing to pay money for your thoughts is a recipe that has served van Däniken well. A dozen or more books theorizing on extraterrestial involvement in everything from the Pyramids at Saquarra to the temples of the Aztecs and the Mayas, to the cities and constructions of the Incas is proof that van Däniken's mind is not at rest but simply disconnected with reality, history, logical thought and evolution. Perhaps he never believed what he wrote. Perhaps he simply invented an alternative choice to create income. That is more plausible than extraterrestials and time travel.
The Park runs on a different program. The entrance fee is nominal at 3 Reals but you can only visit if accompanied by a guide. The guide service costs 15 Reals. At 3-4 hours for a tour the guides don't get rich, but they do make a living.
Cities they were not. Perhaps an interplay of some igneous activity or not, and natural erosionary forces combined with some other interplay of rock composition and weather has resulted in the formation of these weird and unique formations.
Ancient peoples were here but they were of the Cave Dwelling genus, perhaps some 15,000 years ago. They painted the walls with their red ochre formula in shapes of the human hand, lizards, a man (flying?), a solar calendar (some interpretation required), and an assortment of geometric designs perhaps representing....what??? For the most part these petroglyphs have not been studied or deciphered. They are just waiting....
I like it when a young lady greets me at reception. They go out of their way to help you. The men just shrug you off. Today was no exception. At Hotel Pousada dos Ventos here in Paraibu, before I checked in I wanted to see if and when I could take a tour of the Mangrove Swamps. Initially I was told the tours ran only on the weekends. Today was Thursday. I didn't want to wait an extra day.
Perseverence and persuasion paid off. There were four service companies providing the service. Calls were made, a connection was established and yes I could get added to the list of a tour departing tomorrow at 8 AM. They would pick me up and drop me off at the hotel. Now that's service! A man would never had done that, for me! And to top it off I received a 25% discount on the room rate.
Finally I found a restaurant in Brasil that knows how to cook shrimp...Camaraos del diablo...simply perfect. Served with a pasta and a "hot", tomato pepper sauce it was just excellent. I was almost ready to give up I had had so many disappointing dishes. The Mexicans however are still KING of the shrimp dishes.
Down here and in the rest of Latin America, Honda has put the common man on wheels. He has been given freedom of movement which he otherwise would not have and could not enjoy.
From the venerable Honda 50 that started it all, to its big sister the Honda 90 and its inbred children the 125, 150, 175, 200 and 250 Honda is King. For over 46 years Honda has not relinquished its stranglehold on the motorcycle market, to any of its competitors.
These singles are the heartbeat of the common man and woman. They provide economic, personal transportation...sometimes for entire families of 4 or 5 people. They serve as moto taxis, general delivery and Pizza delivery bikes. Add a side car for bigger payloads and supermarket grocery deliveries. Strap on a side bracket and carry your surf board. Build some saddle brackets and carry 2x50 lb propane bottles or multiple 20 liter water bottles. Make a 4-wheel semi-trailer unit by adding a trailer. Remove/modify the swing arm and end up with a trike to be used as a closed-in moto taxi. Honda builds these 3-wheelers especially for the South American market and probably for the Asian market as well. Take the front wheel off and weld the forks to a large, front end trailer and you have a vegetable wagon. These are more than conveniences. They are the life blood and work horses for an entire civilization. Honda you have done yourself proud.
In Santa Ines, Maranhäo, I stepped out of the hotel and into the street. People stopped and stared. They looked at me as if I was from outer space. I checked to see if I had forgotten to put my shorts on. Everything was in order. I guess they had never seen a white guy before. I flashed them my best smile and said "Good Afternoon". Nothing...just a blank stare...not even a smile.
I moved down the street and hailed a passing boy on a bicycle. He skidded into a 'U' Turn uncertain if he should flee or heed the call. I reached out and steadied his ride. The women on the sidewalk stopped and stared, not sure what I would do next, now that I held him captive. I asked him where the nearest Internet Cafe was. He looked at me blankly, his eye wide and wild. I repeated the question, more slowly this time. "Oh, just down here...one block. There are two."
"Which is the best?" I asked.
"They are about the same", came the reply.
I released my grip and carried on down the street. I entered the first cafe and settled in at my machine. Five minutes later the boy opened the door and surveyed the crowd. Satisfied when he found me he closed the door and returned to his bicycle, probably to report to the astounded ladies on the sidewalk.
I flagged down a trucker today. I could smell brakes burning but there was no hill. Ahead of me, in the distance I saw the semi. As I drew near the smell intensified and the smoke increased. Oblivious to it all he motored ahead. Here in Brasil they dump the diesel exhaust out the side, behind the cab. They do not use the chrome stacks so prevalent in North America. If he did check his mirror and saw smoke he probably assumed it was exhaust smoke.
I pulled beside him and caught his attention and then pointed to his wheels. He quickly interpreted the gesture and pulled over. He jumped out of the cab as I walked towards him.
"What's wrong?", he asked, as he looked at the front wheel.
I pointed to the second set of duals on the tractor. A trail of smoke rose from the hub. One of his air brakes hadn't released. He shook my hand vigorously. "Thank you" (Obrigado), he said.
"Denada", I returned.
I left him to his chore. I would be on the air waves tonight. Breaker, breaker, 1-9er. There's a bear in the air and a gringo biker on the ground. My hub's a cook'n, but the gringo was look'n and now my bacon's saved. The brakes ain't died because he spied the smoke aris'n from my side. That's a big 10-4 brother.
They say it is tough to leave Brasil. To the layman that doesnīt mean anything. When I first read the statement, I had the typical, standard reaction. "Oh yeah...what do they mean? Why would it be different?"
After over two months of travel Belem was still out of reach and time was ticking away. I had fallen into the trap. It was hard to leave! In order to avoid becoming a prisoner I decided to cross off items from the itinerary and make a concerted effort to reach Belem. Even once there it would be almost three weeks before I could leave Brasil, if I left at all. I could feel the noose tightening. I could feel her fingers grasping mine...was that you Brasil or was it someone else?
The road north from Santa Ines went to Belem. It was the only road north. The sign said it was 569.8 kilometers. I pointed the RANA north.
The problem was there was no road. It took 3 hours to travel the first 100 km. It was a non-road. There was no part about that first section that resembled a road, except for maybe the edges that provided a demarkation line.
The semi-trailer traffic, myself and the odd car struggled through the maze of ruts and craters using whatever piece of the road looked the best. Oncoming traffic sometimes passed on the right with a semi in the middle and me on the left. It was a scene right out of a dodge-em car carousel. Holes four feet deep and ten to fifteen feet across marked the path. It was the poorest excuse for the main and only link north that there ever was.
The second section resembled a road but was still a non-road. It too had crater sized vados and pavement shrapnel littering the surface. This road had not been neglected for years...it had been neglected for decades. A road only becomes this bad after it is totally abandoned for untold years.
Brasil you have turned your back on the north. You have nourished and fattened your Politicians, Wealthy Land Owners and Business Owners to the south of Rio but this is the forgotten north...the nameless land. You have turned your back on 2/3 of your country and its people. Shame on you BRASIL.
The last 200 kms were actually a road that deteoriated somewhat as I approached Belem. My fond memories of Brasil had been scarred. The poverty here was out front...in your face. It is absurd to rape and pillage your own country and provide nothing in return but Brasil has played the game well...they were trained by the best.
The RANA clicked over 190,000 kms on the way to Belem as together we contentedly hummed down the last few kilometers of pavement to that port city. We had some hard knocks on the journey here...we had endured alot together...we had cursed the road and pounded through holes...we had fought the weather and its vagaries and won. In five months of travel you could count the hours of rain on the fingers of one hand. We were both seemingly in good health. We moved towards the next phase of the journey.
Belem was the eastern terminus for staging trips up the Amazon to Santarem and Manaus. From Manaus you could go further west to Iquitos Peru, all by river. There were no roads west from here. The Amazon River was the road. The Brasilian dream of a Trans-Amazonas road had vaporized years ago. The jungle was now busy reclaiming manīs most recent assault.
Crowne Plaza Belém. In my quest for a place to stay the Crowne Plaza stood out from the crowd. It was new and shiny and tall. I knew it would be expensive but I needed to stop somewhere and get my bearings. I pulled into the entrance area. Almost immediately there was a flurry of activity about me.
"Good to see you sir. Welcome to the Crowne Plaza. I am glad you stopped to see us. Please come in and we will give you a tour." The words rolled off of his lips like stacatto gunfire.
"Easy does it. Hold on a moment. Well...since you are here, how much is a room?"
"We are not officially open today but please come and tour our facilities."
"OK, so thatīs it. I had stumbled onto an 'Open House' and by the looks of things I was one of the few people to show up today." I pulled out my City Map. "Can you show me where I am?"
"We are right here. There is a hotel here and here and here."
"Thank you very much."
"Come back and see us."
"Yes, maybe tomorrow." Nice chaps but they need to take a pill.
Visions of Jakarta danced before me. A clean shirt lasted exactly 5 minutes...the length of time it took to take the elevator from my air conditioned room to the lobby, step outside and walk to the curb. With the humidity at 99.9% and the thermometer at 35.9 C I instantly looked like I had just run a marathon...my shirt soaked through and stuck to my body like paint.
I delivered my bike to the docks on Monday. They put her in the bowels of the N/M Amazon Star...or not. I would know for sure when I returned on Wednesday to sail. They offer the suite, the standard and the hammock at deckside. I paid extra for the suite, a 10 ft x 7 ft box with air conditioning, a bunk bed and a private banõ in a separate room. I can't even begin to imagine what the standard room would be like. I hope they have a light passenger load so I don't have to share my cramped quarters.
The rainiest city in the world never shed a drop.
I was about to embark on a journey up the Amazon, the world's mightiest river. A journey that would take me from Belem to Santarém and onward to Manaus my final destination.
The Amazon River Basin drains 6 million sq. km. and is the world's largest both in terms of drainage area and volume. With depths of up to 120 meters it is navigable by ocean going vessels beyond Manaus all the way to Iquitos, Peru. Even its tributaries are mighty...the Rio Juruá, the Solimões, the Rio Madeira-Mamoré, the Rio Purus/Pauini and the Rio Negro. Only the last two are less than 3,000 km in length.
The first know foreigner to navigate the Amazon River was Captain Francisco de Orellana, in 1541. Second in command on a expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro, the group ran desperately short of food while still in the upper reaches of the river. Unable to turn back, for they knew well the deprivation they had suffered to reach this point, with Gonzalo sick and ailing, Orellana volunteered to lead a splinter group a few days journey downriver in quest of food while the main body of the expedition remained in the encampment to conserve their energy and meager resources.
Immediately distrustful of Orellana, Gonzalo hesitated but desperation finally drove him to release the scouting party. Once in the clutches of the might river the small party was borne downriver. The food situation remained dire with the unforgiving jungle yielding little to their quest. It soon became evident to the group that they had no possibility of return to the main party. The strong currents, the lack of food, the hostile Indians and the impenetrable jungle made return by water or land impossible.
They continued to follow the currents for instinct told them that this mighty river would eventually exit to the sea. Months later, almost naked, for their clothes had worn and rotted off of their bodies, and suffering terribly, they arrived at the mouth of the river...the Atlantic Ocean.
In spite of the trials they had endured much lay ahead. Orellana knew he must continue. He must somehow get back to Spain. He and his crew fashioned a seaworthy craft of sorts and proceeded to follow the shoreline north. Their destination was Cartagena, the Spanish stronghold. Along the northern reaches of South America a Spanish Galleon picked them up and ferried them onwards to Cartagena. Barely alive, naked, starved, dehydrated and sunburned they were nurtured back to health.
Orellana knew he had survived the journey but the battle had not been won. He must now fight for his life, like never before. He had disobeyed a direct order from his Commanding Officer, Gonzalo Pizarro, by not returning to the encampment. He had no way of knowing if Gonzalo had survived, for over 6 months had passed and internet service had not yet reached this remote outpost of South America. His only hope of acquittal was to plead his case directly to the King himself, for he knew he had fallen out of favor with the Pizarro clan, whatever fate Gonzalo had suffered.
The King warmed to him slowly, but after considering the incredible story of adventure, discovery, suffering and deprivation he acknowledged Orellana had made the correct choices, granted him full pardon and promoted him to Captaincy. Orellana had gambled once again and had won, for to have lost this final battle he would have relinquished his life after enduring so much. It would all have been for naught.
It was into this land of the Amazon that I would proceed next...a land somewhat tamed and plundered since those early days but still unsubdued, unconquered, unforgiving and punishing.
The taxi would pick me up at 16:00 hours. The short 10 minute ride to the port would bring me one step closer to departure. I longed to see if the RANA had been loaded...if everything remained intact or if she had been stripped to her bones. I longed to see if I would share my suite or if I would enjoy my solitude. I wondered about the all-inclusive fare. How good or bad would the meals be? This was not the Love Boat. The swimming pool was the Amazon. The deck was the hammock area for those not willing or able to ante-up for the prime cabin space.
The journey would take five days. I would arrive in Manaus on Monday. Perhaps I would have some answers then. Until then my friends...
I arrived at the port at 4 PM. Udivan was there to greet me. He wanted to be paid for the moto shipment.
They had an X-Ray scanner for the luggage. Guns and knives were OK but my helmet failed. I had stuffed it with peanuts and they could not interpret the image. I emptied the contents on the table. I was free to go.
The baggage handler insisted on helping me with my things. I had jugs of water, luggage and my riding gear. I relented. He fleeced me 10 Reais for the lot. I asked the lady next to me. She said she had paid 20 R...somehow I doubt it.
I thought we would get supper but there are no meals on the day of departure. They would start tomorrow with breakfast. The little things they don't tell you. I could have eaten at the hotel.
The RANA was up front on the main deck. I checked for missing parts. They had pilfered the small stuff...the chrome clasp for my tank bag, but not the contents. They had tried to steal my "Green Rana" but could not free him from his perch. He dangled precariously, tethered by the wire I had used to secure him.
I checked my suite, No. 06...right next to the wheelhouse. No neighbours. It should be nice and quiet. I waited out the time. No one arrived to claim the extra bed. I had gambled and won. I paid half fare based on double occupancy and took the risk. I would be alone until Santarem at least, our next big port of call. That was nearly half the journey, so life was good.
We left at 7PM in the dark of the night...too bad. I thought we were supposed to leave at 6PM. Perhaps we were running late. It didn't matter. We were running and we would probably arrive at the other end when we did and not before. I erased all scheduling concerns from my mind. I had no worries, no concerns.
It took some persistence to get a "Receipt" for the bike. I was't going to pay and not get a receipt and then have a problem later on, if and when they do a paper check.
"Who did you pay?"
"Udivan, the same guy I paid for the passage."
The attendant returned a blank stare.
I produced his "Card."
Udivan had shown up at the hotel. He was legit. He talked with the travel agent. I didn't get it. Why the games?
Finally I went to the pursor and got a receipt. Nobody wants to accept responsibilty for anything. That's the trouble with these Latin people. They talk a line but nobody will sign on the line.
Night fell upon Belem. Lightning streaked the overcast sky but no rain fell. The brown waters parted as we pulled away from the dock. Ahead the sky was clear and blue, the water still brown...not pollution but the silt carried by the Amazon. Even in the low season the river still did its work.
At Manaus, the height of this great river varies 46 feet from the high season to the low season...a normal seasonal variation, not an anonomoly.
The city lights shrank in the distance to be replaced by an incredible night sky, undiminished by artificial light.
I went back to my cabin to watch the news. Incredibly I had 127 channels and the reception was crystal clear...CNN, TNT, Showtime...I had them all. I wanted to see who shot who in Lebanon, was Saddam guilty? Was that a murderer who killed Jon Bennett or just an idiot pretending to be a murderer? Were the stupid Iranians still playing their childish games or had the Americans nuked them? Surely there must be something important going on. Yes...a jetliner had crashed in Russia...???....
The only problem was there was no TV to receive the signal...the questions remained unanswered...for now.
The captain steamed on. He had a mission. I had a life preserver for a pillow support. I checked the boat for life boats...no boats but about 40 rafts...about half of what we would need to save everyone. If we went down the RANA would die...perhaps me too. I looked forward to crossing over to the dark side. I could be in the News.
"Biker dies while trying to navigate the Amazon." Who would care. Nobody even knew where I was. My Passport No. wasn't on the manifest...just my name, correctly spelled this time, and CANADA. I would be easy to identify. The only white guy...a Beluga Whale. They would stop and stare. My tombstone would read.
White Guy from Canada
Etched in white marble it would outlast my past.
I warmed slowly to my Amazon environment...or perhaps too quickly. The relentless heat, the high humidity and perhaps the ravages of time travel took their toll.
I became unwell on that first day of sailing. I welcomed the relief of my air-conditioned room and traded the environs of the Amazon Delta for the spartan comfort of my climate controlled confines. Sleep was easy to find as I alternated between naps and short forays onto the deck. I could not afford to miss much but I could ill afford to be sick. I hoped my compromise was correctly balanced.
I worked my way steadily through the 15 liters of water I had carried on board....15 liters for 5 days. It would be enough. A day later I was upright again, revelling in the bright outlook the new day had brought.
I quit trying to find out when meal time was. It was always different than the posted time. The "Jantar" Lady always sought me out wherever I was. She would never let me miss a meal. That seemed to be her mission...keep the white guy fed. On a ship that could carry 676 passengers I was a conspicuous anonomoly, and ever more conspicuous by my absence.
The "Jantar" Lady would come to fetch me. She treated each event like it was "the first time." If I looked at her quizically she would cock her head to one side, like man's best friend, and beckon me to follow. She would take a few steps and then turn to see if I was behind her, and motion me onwards. "Ya gotta love these Brasilians."
We sailed and we sailed and we sailed. The landscape was a million shades of green...a million variations of vegetation...a million combinations of water, estuaries, islands, trees, plants, beaches, ships, boats, canoes, houses, stilts, gardens, cattle, horses, water buffalo and people...yes, people.
People were constantly present, making their lives here beside and on the Amazon...living together or in solitude...living with nothing or seemingly plenty, but living a life unmolested by the vagaries and evils of civilization.
There was a stark simplicity to their lives even when contrasted with the utilitarian conveniences of my ship. It shared similarities with a similiar trip I had taken down the River Nile, a decade or more ago. Similar in that we glided passed their lives for a brief instant, obtaining but a snapshot of these people...the landscape ever changing...their lives untouched by ours...we merely a temporary intrusion into their world.
It is not possible to effectively describe what passes before my eyes. It is both sensory and visual. The soaring thunderheads, the whimsical clouds, the white egrets fluttering against the breeze, the ponds, the lakes and backwaters, the river beaches and the trees too numerous to name, the river traffic from dugout canoes to barges and ocean freighters, the lush, fresh smell as the afternoon heat dissipates into the cool freshness of evening, the sun rising over the Amazon, the sun setting over the Amazon, the quiet sobreity that evening brings as it closes the door on the day. How can you put that into words? You cannot capture it or film it...you must experience it and take the memory with you.
Belem was 2-1/2 degrees south of the equator. Santarem was 3 degrees. Manaus was a little more. I had to check my map to confirm it. I didn't believe I was at the same latitude as Quito, Ecuador. I was! But what a difference 8,000 feet ASL made.
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