Saturday, 3 November 2012

A really big river...

I have been thinking about writing this for a long time. Over the past few weeks, I have allowed myself to be diverted into telling stories about Europe in the 1970s and about Pauline's first trip to sea.
I also wanted to write about Newcastle, this city which we have found so easy to adapt to and where we are beginning to feel so much at home. 
But the real reason is that when I do write about this amazing river, I want to get it right.
So this is my challenge - tell a story in as few words as will retain your interest. 
  • I must not be boring,
  • I must not lose the plot.
But I must tell you about my year on the fantastic Amazon River. 

So where do I begin?  I have already talked about some of my experiences on Viajero and if you haven't read them, please visit my links at Welcome to Brooklyn - 1966 and The Perfect Cuba Libre. As I have mentioned in these little stories Viajero was one of a number of ships owned by Booth Line (part of the Blue Star Group) which were sailing from the eastern coast of the United States, though the Caribbean and carrying general cargo to ports along the Amazon River from Belém at the mouth of the river in Brazil, to Iquitos 3,000 miles upstream in Peru.  
Long before any sight of land, this graphic view shows how the colour of the water changes.

This is not going to be a geography lesson. There are many websites available which will provide much more detail, with a great deal more accuracy than I can muster. But I can't talk about this great waterway without mentioning one or two facts.
It's not the world's longest river; allegedly, the Nile beats it by a couple of hundred kilometres (although personally I find this hard to believe) - but at over 6,000 kilometres the Amazon is still a rather long river.  But it's not the length, it's the volume which makes it so massive.  The Amazon discharges more water into the ocean than the next seven largest rivers combined and in so doing accounts for about 20% of the water flow of all the rivers in the world.  Fresh water from the Amazon River can be found 200 kilometres out to sea and over 1,500 kilometres up river from its mouth the banks are still ten kilometres apart in places. Little wonder then that the first bridge across the river doesn't appear until Manaus, a good two weeks sailing from Belém and this bridge was not completed until 2010.  Certainly during the time I was on the river, there were no bridges across any part of the river I was on, and I travelled as far as Iquitos in Peru, almost 4,000 kilometres from the mouth of the river.
As Viajero approached the river on our way south and long before any sight of land, the first indication was a sudden and dramatic change in the colour of the ocean from a deep Caribbean blue to a muddy flat brown. It was as if there had been a line drawn in the water - on one side was the ocean we had been in for the past two weeks; then we crossed it and in a moment we were already in the thrall of the river.  This was the situation for at least two days as we made our way down the coast, passing low lying islands that form the river delta, and which are themselves the size of a small country.
Then at last we were on the River Pará where we dropped anchor on the south side of the island of Marajó which for those interested in trivia, is the largest island in the world completely surrounded by freshwater.  It was here that we would clear customs and wait for the pilot to take us alongside to the city of Belém, where we were expecting to spend at least two or three days.
Belém was not quite what I expected.  As I walked from the docks shortly after we had tied up alongside, I was immediately captivated by the feeling of open space in this luxuriously tropical city with its long Portuguese colonial heritage.  The city is nearly four hundred years old, and did not become a part of Brazil until more than a hundred and fifty years after it was first colonized as a Portuguese fortress city.  I don't know what I had been expecting, maybe a smaller, poorer version of some of the major sea ports along the Brazilian coast further south.  
It wasn't like that at all - it was no more than five minutes' walk from the buzz and bustle of the docks, before I came to a large expanse of park area, surrounded by wide footpaths and even wider streets and people everywhere strolling around in the steamy humidity dressed as though they were off to a Victorian wedding. I'm sure I'm exaggerating, but I will always remember the feeling of stepping back in time as I walked around the streets of this city - and I was to spend quite a few weeks there over the next year or so.
One other incongruous memory I have of Belém is that it was here, while escaping from the dripping heat one late afternoon, I escaped to a local cinema and was regaled with the splendour of Edwardian London as I watched My Fair Lady from the comfort of one of a row of deck chairs, complete with Portuguese sub-titles and thick atmosphere of Brazilian Souza Cruz tobacco.
But the real business of the river was yet to come and after a few days we were on our way into the main body of the river. In the year or so I was on Viajero, I did five round trips from New York to Iquitos and back.  In my next blog I will combine the best parts of these trips into one journey from Belém to Iquitos and back.  I hope you'll stay with me for it.



  1. I'm on the hook, Mike. Keep writing. We are hoping to visit brother Peter in Sao Paulo next year. Rod

  2. Thanks for the feedback Rod - always appreciated!