It’s 1:20am and I’m listening for river pirates. Earlier tonight, Magda and I left our tiny windowless cabin for a breath of fresh air to find the ship in near total darkness. No lights on shore, a few stars and the occasional distant flash of lightning. I switched on my iPhone’s flashlight and we walked up to the bow of the ship. As we walked past the bridge, the captain, or whoever was at the helm, whistled at us and barked an order in Portuguese. Being that we were the only light, I switched mine off. Why would light disturb the captain, a friendly guy in general, so much? Ten minutes ago the motors shut off, leaving not only an eerie silence but an unnatural stillness. The engines of the Liberty Star do not run smoothly, meaning that the whole boat shudders constantly as she crawls upriver. All was still and quiet until we heard what had to have been a cargo boat come alongside. A diesel engine was grumbling, and occasionally the steel hull of the ship received a bang and gonged like a bell. I was thinking of going outside again but Magda stopped me.
“What if it’s pirates?” She asked, in a whisper.
All of Belem seemed to know that a group of motorcyclists were aboard the Liberty Star, their very expensive bikes in the cargo hold. Was there a ship alongside us? Unloading motorcycles? Then I remembered the blackout I’d turned a light on during. In fact we had read, come to think of it, of captains dousing the lights on board to thwart Amazonian river pirates. Here I’d come along, telegraphing our position. The engines have started again, we seem to be underway. The walls are vibrating gently, occasionally sending a more violent shudder through my bunk. I guess we’ll see on the morning if our hold has been emptied or not.
Ok so no. That’s the problem with noises in the middle of the night and overactive imaginations. Our hold was not emptied and the morning light brought nothing more unusual than the scenery of Amazon jungle constantly rolling past. Sporadically, stilt houses with crumpled docks and half submerged canoes appear. Colorful clothes hang drying on clothes lines like prayer flags. The serious faces of little children follow us from the windows. Often other children will hear our engines and run to their canoes, wielding oversized paddles and struggling outwards into the river. Children of five or six or seven, further miniaturized by the long dugouts, paddle and splash to get within shouting distance of the Liberty Star. If they’re lucky, a passenger onboard will have prepared an inflated plastic bag full of cookies or sweets, and will hurl it their direction, into the chocolate milk water of the Amazon.
Sometimes there are no houses for miles, just empty, impenetrable jungle, tree trunks wading in the high water of the wet season. Birds flit from branch to branch. Without the shanties we’re alone on the river, a little floating community of Brazilians and foreigners, dozens of hammocks strung up on the open decks, swinging gently with the rocking boat.
We opted for comfort. Our cabin is a tiny space filled with a twin bunk bed. We have our own bathroom, which is in itself an overstatement. We shower with river water. Flushing the toilet is like pulling the pin on a water grenade, you have a second or two to jump out of the little closet before it sprays everywhere sending a torrent rushing across the floor.
We miss out on the famous camaraderie of the river boat while staying in a cabin. People hanging side by side in colorful hammocks often say it’s the best experience of their time in Brazil, getting to know their neighbors on a intimate level. The hammocks are often triple stacked, so that every level is intimate indeed as your neighbor’s rear end is inches from your face. But there does form a hammock brotherhood that we’re missing out on. We make up for it by receiving lectures from drunken Brazilians in the bar.
Our days are spent wandering the decks, finding a shady spot from which to sketch or photograph the passing landscape. The heat of the day chases most back to their hammocks, but as the sun lowers passengers start to reappear, nourishing themselves on overpriced beer and conversation.
One evening an impromptu soccer game started on the roof deck, players kicking a crumbled plastic bottle too and fro. I watched as a goalie dove to protect his goal, fully outstretched and landing with a metallic boom on his side. No goal! The crash prompted the bartender to run up and chase everyone away, a typical Brazilian confrontation that began with raised voices and ended in laughter.
Occasionally the boat is boarded, not by river pirates, but by small time entrepreneurs, paddling like mad to intercept our trajectory, then using a hook and rope to attach themselves to the tires that acts as bumpers. Stuck on like a barnacle to a whale, they climb bare footed up the decks, a bag of fruit for sale clutched between their teeth. When they’ve sold their goods, they climb back down, cut the rope, peel off and ride the wake of the boat until they join the other tiny specs far behind us on the massive waterway.
And it is massive. For the first two days we travelled up little channels in the great delta, cutting between islands that made the river appear narrow. When we reached the main body, those of us who’d never seen it before let out a collective gasp. A green curtain of jungle was pulled away to reveal a great brown plane of water, speckled with giant logs, floating grass islands, a fisherman in a long tail outboard. The other side was visible, but was a pencil thin line of trees on the distant horizon. It’s still possible we weren’t seeing the entire width of the river.
Of wildlife we’ve seen disappointingly little. Magda spotted some river dolphins, a guy from Vancouver claimed to have seen the elusive Amazonian pink dolphin. But you know Canadians, they’re always making stuff up. Once we spotted a beautiful waterbird and asked the rotund first mate its name. He scratched one of his chins and declared, sagely, “PATO”, which in Portuguese, like Spanish, means “duck”.
On the last evening of our trip to Santarém we sat on the decks watching the sunset over a break in the jungle. Acres of green wetlands stretched away, cut through with little channels and occasionally a water buffalo. A crescent moon appeared, accompanied by Venus. The boat hummed on, again the captain didn’t turn on any lights, just occasionally flashed a spotlight towards the dark waters ahead. Deciding to get to the bottom of the mystery of the imaginary river pirates, I asked permission to enter the bridge, darkening by the moment as night gathered. Receiving permission from the Captain, a stocky young man sitting rigidly upright on a wooden stool, I entered and asked in fractured Portuguese,
“Why have no lights?”
He clicked on a powerful spotlight that illuminated a narrow hallway of visibility before us. Piles of lily pads and islands of foliage took on a guilty aspect, caught in the act of floating harmlessly downstream.
“I have a light” he said. And switched off the beam.
A blanket of darkness returned, total blackness except for only a small gash torn by the crescent moon and a growing number of pinpricks poked through by stars.