Dispatches from Abroad: Down the Amazon (I) – Leticia & Tabatinga to Manaus

16 November 2016

After five days in Colombia—two in Leticia bracketing three at Parque Nacional Amacayacu, I crossed the transparent border between Colombia and Brazil, from Leticia into Tabatinga, where I boarded the ferry boat F/B Diamante for a four-day trip down the Amazon to Manaus (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos).

When I was in Leticia in May of last year, after teaching a week-long statistics workshop in Bogotá, I decided that a slow trip down the Amazon would be the perfect end to my upcoming sabbatical. Sandwiched between a short visit to P.N. Amacayacu and field work with my colleague Rogério Silva in Caixuaña, 400km up the Xingu River west of Belém, this trip was meant to be a 10-day meditation. And following last week’s presidential election in the US, some deep meditation is definitely in order.

The Diamante sailed—well actually motored, thrummed, and groaned—more or less on time, around 12:30. For 200 Brazilian Reais (about 60 US $), one can sling a hammock on one of the two decks; for 1000 BR, one can have a bunk bed in a cabin with A/C, private bath and shower, and a locked door. Either way, bring water and a towel. And plan an extra day in Leticia before the ferry leaves to deal with the requisite paperwork: exit stamp from Colombia (at the Leticia airport); entry stamp into Brazil (at the Federal Police in Tabatinga); changing currency into Brazilian Reals; and buying the ferry ticket. And water and a towel. All of which took a couple of hours of tuk-tuking around and waiting in (mostly short) lines.

Tuk-tuking around in Leticia

About an hour out of Tabatinga, we made our first stop, at the port of Benjamin Constant, where for two hours, more passengers, plantains, propane, live poultry, and an assortment of other dry goods were loaded on board. Vendors came on board too, to sell fruit or boxed lunches, and which were well-timed as there’s no lunch the first day out. By 15:30, we were on the river again, dolphins playing in our wake (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos).

Dinner at 17:00, the first scheduled meal of the trip. Rice, beef stew with squash and globules of beef fat, and the ubiquitous farinha (crunchy tan pellets of processed cassava). Unexceptional calories, but three meals a day come with the fare. Plates and cutlery provided, but locals bring their own, collect their portions, and return to the deck or hammock.

One of three decks of the F/B Diamante

Afterwards, sitting on the after-deck, watching the sunset. Bats cross our wake and the sky flames orange. The forest goes dark quickly here just south of the equator (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photo).


17 November 2016

The sun comes up as quickly as it sets.


Breakfast at 06:30 is a scrambled-egg sandwich and welcome fresh fruit (watermelon, papaya, pineapple, plantains). Scarfed down quickly just before we reached the morning’s first stop at Amaturá (although technically the first stop of the day was at 01:00 at São Paulo de Olivença, but I mostly slept through that one). The dry-season dock at Amaturá was far from town and seemed a bit makeshift, but presumably during the rainy season the boat could get a lot closer in. But it was a great place to see fish-hawks skimming the emergent marsh for their breakfast, while on the boat, still more people, plantains, propane, and poultry moved on and off (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos).

A short run thereafter to Santo Antônio do Iça, which we reached 30 minutes early, at 10:30, the same time that lunch is scheduled on the boat. So lunch was postponed until after we left port. Santo Antônio do Iça is a medium-sized town overseen by an orange-washed church. Dolphins swim in the harbor as oblivious to the people in motorboats crisscrossing the embayment as the latter seemed to be to the dolphins. As we left port, lunch was served: a carbohydrate festival of rice, spaghetti, potato salad, farina, and roast chicken. And a guava jelly candy as a sweet treat. Then onward another couple hours to Tonantins, notable for its long floating gangway to the dock, tiny ice-cream cones at 1 BR, and a perfunctory document check that was much less onerous than the full pat-down by armed federal police at a midstream checkpoint the night before (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos).

Then back on the river.

Moving down the river on a medium-sized ferry, it is perhaps unsurprising that one sees little in the way of wildlife. We are relatively far from shore, the engine noise masks bird calls and insect stridulations, and spooks the larger animals. At the same time, although the forest appears endless, people are everywhere. Individual houses punctuate and perforate the riverbank, cows graze on the riverbank, small settlements and larger towns appear at intervals, and villages of native peoples, many of whom have deliberately forsworn contact with modern Colombian, Peruvian, or Brazilian societies are scattered throughout Amazonas. (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos)

But still, what a forest!

Back in Colombia, I had gone to P.N. Amacayacu to be introduced to their large forest dynamics plot; to think about biodiversity and species interactions; to learn about how the field station there worked especially in relation to my ongoing work in Australia helping to set up a new field station on Fraser Island for the University of the Sunshine Coast; and to be in a rainforest again. Amacayacu was all that, and much more (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos).

The graduate students and post-docs were a great group with whom to spend a few days in the field. Macaws, oropendolas, wood-creepers, innumerable tyrant flycatchers, and neotropical migrants fleeing the northern hemisphere’s onrushing winter lit up the forest in color and song. The rainforest in southern Colombia is extraordinarily diverse—there are at least 1200 woody plant species in the 25-hectare forest dynamics plot at Amacayacu—and it was simply overwhelming to see the variety of shapes, forms, and shades of green as we walked through the plot. And it was capped by the full supermoon—the largest since 1948 and until 2034—rising over the Amazon. Truly a sight to see!


All of which can be appreciated because of a well-functioning field station. The scientists work well together, the administrators take care of the logistical details in ways that seem effortless and transparent to the scientists, and the support staff is respected for the outstanding jobs that they do keeping everyone fed and comfortable. A functioning, multilingual community embedded within the surrounding regional society all with a keen interest in the world around them is far more important for a successful field station than fancy classrooms or high-tech equipment. Good food, of course, makes a real difference.


The river glides by.

The forest here is dynamic. Patches of leafless trees occur at intervals on the cut-bank. From the center of the river, I can’t tell if they’re leafless in the dry season or dead, either from last year’s record flooding, or from waterlogging and erosion as the river meanders from side to side (later on, one of the other passengers I struck up a conversation with suggested that they were dead from the three previous years of record and near-record high waters. But he also said this is all part of a natural process, and the trees come back quickly). The cut-bank itself can be more than 10 meters high, a visible reminder of the floods to come in a few months. On the other side, sand beaches and sand bars emerge at low water, and the boat sticks to the middle of the channel. At night, the spotlight perpetually scans the water illuminating eyes and obstacles.

Dinner, just like lunch. Rice, spaghetti, farinha; baked beans and squash replaced the potato salad and ground beef casserole replaced the chicken. I decide that farinha is much better soaked with olive oil and dressed with hot sauce.

Sunset is more pastel and less flame, but no less beautiful for it.



18 November 2016

Up early to see the sunrise but cold rain instead. It passes, or we motor through it. Does it matter which?


Breakfast: scrambled-egg sandwich, watermelon, papaya, and plantains (the pineapple is long gone); small cereal flakes (corn?) taste fine in chocolate milk, and a piece of watermelon rind makes a passable spoon. But why are utensils available at lunch and dinner but not breakfast? As we start the big bend southward towards Manaus, the morning sun rakes the sandbars and birds cross our bow.

An unexpected nap in my hammock, which I string up on deck during the day. Woke just in time for lunch (at 10:30), which today featured salad along with the other standards. Then perched in the shade on the top deck watching the river flow by.

The main stem narrows a bit here, the cut-banks are higher, the trees seem greener and thicker, and the villages more frequent. Some even have electric lines strung along small roads and paths, and the occasional cell tower awakens my phone to deliver two days’ worth of messages. A gentle reminder that I’ll be in Manaus tomorrow morning.

We pass through a rain shower, emerge into a rainbow,and turn around to see another glorious sunset.



19 November 2016

We’re 1500 km further east, in the same time-zone (Manaus), and the sun rises a bit earlier.


We were an hour late into Jutaí (20:00) last night, which carried over to Fonte Boa (02:30). I awoke briefly to the triple horn as we left that port for the expected 31-hour straight run to Manaus. The bunk-bed in my cabin is surprisingly comfortable and the gentle rocking of the boat quickly lulled me to back sleep.

Another day, another breakfast. And anticipation that we will reach Manaus early morning turns to waiting, as the captain announces that we will arrive around 16:00. No accounting for those lost 8 hours, even allowing for the extra hour at Fonte Boa. Good time to do a little writing and editing, enjoy the scenery,  and soak up some more sun.

And of course, another lunch. Same as the days before. But still good enough to eat.

And finally, around 15:00, we espy Manaus on the horizon. The boat pilot beckons me into the pilot-house to see the famed meeting of the waters, where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões join to form what the Brazilians refer to as the Amazon (click on the thumbnails to enlarge the photos).


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