The Slow Boat to Manaus

Life is pretty routine when you’re traveling the Amazon river by cargo ship: Every day you wake up at exactly 5.30AM and mingle with people from another world.

Tiny white birds fly framed against the dense greens of the Rainforest, carelessly riding the river breeze. Their only companions on the banks are dug-out canoes, bobbing in the wake of the slow boat to Manaus.

I started my journey in the twin towns of Leticia and Tabatinga, where the hazy line between Colombia and Brazil is breached along the river. Tabatinga’s port is the jumping point for Amazonian locals seeking work and for travellers not sure quite what they’re seeking. Approaching the one ticketing desk at the dockyard, I request a ticket to the next big city in Brazil’s Amazon basin and find myself with a cheap ticket to Manaus.

Mingling among locals as we line up for extensive drug searches, I quickly realise that the babbling mix of Portuguese and indigenous Amazonian languages would be lost on me for the next four days. Once the police and their dogs confirm that we are safe to carry on, I set up my spot between the swinging sea of hammocks that make up the covered deck.

Travellers bustle among themselves, securing their place for the long journey ahead. Friends engage in enthusiastic reunions, snacks are shared out among fellow passengers, small children run wild, swept up in excitement, and the same four reggaeton songs start their seemingly endless loop. Most of the people taking this route are regulars; they know the other men that tramp up and down this Amazonian route. They crack open cold beers together and settle in their teetering plastic seats.

It isn’t tough to be content on the deck. The jungle’s edges slip by sedately, bringing with them tropical birds and increasingly curious insect bites. My attempts to chat with my fellow hammock-mates are poor, though I’m sure the long stories the old Brazilian men regale me with would be greatly interesting, were I able to speak Portuguese. They don’t seem to mind that I don’t understand a word, simply enjoying talking for talking’s sake. They set up their five-a-side football matches between hulking freight containers, and the boat’s inhabitants line up to cheer and heckle them in equal turn.

The morning’s murky waters twinkle as the sun gains height, the calm surface only broken by passing dolphins and the heavy storms. It rains every day. Twice a day. The dense, damp heat that hangs over the water after each rain is punctured by spouts of harsh sun. It’s hot, cold, damp, dry, scorching, and tepid—you can pass through every climate in an Amazon evening. Always, the winds are high and the stars are bright.

I spend most of my time watching the river: the trees, the bugs, the clouds, the occasional rainbow. I learn how to kill time, doing absolutely nothing. How to disassociate. It’s possible to spend 10 minutes staring at some trees, check the time, and realise you’d actually been there for two hours. Once you take away all opportunity for electronics, or Wifi, or contact with home, you’d be surprised how easily one can be entertained.

Every day, we wake at sunrise and sleep at sunset. Breakfast is served around 5:30 a.m. each day. It is vile: sickeningly sweet coffee coupled with sickeningly sweet American-style white bread. All of this is lapped up with what seems to be a kind of rice pudding, which is, as you may have foreseen, sickeningly sweet. After the first breakfast, I never touch it again.

Lunch is better, with rice, beans, and even the odd piece of meat. I curry quite a bit of favour with my fellow passengers, trying to make up for being the only one unable to communicate at all, by sharing out a couple bottles of hot sauce I’d stowed away for the journey. Dinner is whatever is left. It is served around 5 p.m., and we are all in bed by 6 p.m.

When sunsets slip over the remotest points along the Amazon River, the sky is a techni-colour marvel. Even the boldest crimson flare fades to a supple lilac before the navy velvet of the night envelops them all. Yet, it’s never dark in the jungle. Unaffected by city lights, or pollution, or distraction, the stars shine brightest in the depths of the Rainforest. Fluid streams of stars frame the pale moon, and the Milky Way is clear to the eye. The nights are warm and smell like flowers, and the skies are clear and littered with light.

While our environment is beautiful, our living conditions are less so. The one time that I attempt to use the ‘shower’ provided on deck, I come to realise that the trickle of water that drips from the hanging rubber tube isn’t worth the flurry of tropical insects that crawl out of the spout alongside it. There is a semi-functioning sink, shared among the hundred or so passengers. Our flimsy day clothes cling to our skin from the sweat in the air, the heavy humidity hanging over the sunlight hours. Every pyjama top, left to the elements during the day, is crawling in critters by the time night falls.

With no second thought, I would readily embrace every disgusting impracticality of life on an Amazonian cargo ship again for the sake of watching the people who travel on it. There is no other place in the world where you will see the people you see on the slow boat to Manaus. Villagers from the remotest communities known to the inhabited Amazonian world ride this route, looking to find work and food to support their families. There are people here who have never seen life outside the deepest jungle.

Arriving in the metropolitan hellhole of Manaus is a sharp cry back to reality. My local companions slip into the heaving dockyard crowds seamlessly, and my Amazonian bubble pops.

Sara Jane Armstrong

Author Sara Jane Armstrong

SJ is a freelance travel writer and a Londoner, passionate about slow travel and building meaningful local connections. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. You can find more of her work at https://sjarmstrong.myportfolio.com/.

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