The Journey by Canoe From Santarém to Belém
The shack looked empty, but as we paddled closer to the bank voices could be heard. The smell of fish roasting on a wood fire teased our hunger and gave us hope for some contact.
“Tudo bem…alô?… boa tarde?”
There was no reply.
To the west the sun would soon begin its swift descent. The place was beautiful, but the Marajó channels were a dangerous part of the Amazon delta and we were anxious to reach a village before night.
By now Aaron and I had been travelling by foot and canoe through Amazônia for over 3000km and were just a couple of weeks away from reaching the city of Belém, where the Amazon reaches the Atlantic. We had paddled out of Santarém 18 days ago, now accompanied by a second canoe containing our friends Eric and Colton. All four of us had been knocked back by heavy fevers, nasty stomach parasites and general fatigue, but what worried us most right now was an encounter with the river pirates that troubled the region.
We never wanted to succumb to fear or play on it to add drama to our story, but around here we were receiving countless warnings of bandit activity and first-hand accounts of murder and of robbery. If they preyed on humble homesteaders, poor ribeirinhos, caboclos and fisherman with little to steal… then we were an extremely tasty target. Worse still, people were afraid of us. They lived in fear of attacks on their isolated communities and whilst we definitely did not fit the profile of Amazonian pirates, they simply did not know what else to make of us when we paddled into these backwaters where outsiders with innocent intentions rarely travel.
… The voices had vanished and silence hung in the air.
We had not got out of the canoes or the sun all day, as usual. Nine hours of solid paddling and all we wanted was for the day to end and a safe place to pass the night. We could no longer risk being caught camping alone in the jungle and got sick of hiding away in the bushes, scared to use our torches or cook due to the potential bandit boats that appeared after dark. Our safe havens were now the small riverside villages. If they had a television it often meant they would be less spooked. They could have seen the outside world, UFOs and mysterious beings before, even if it be through the crackling portal of a cheap Chinese flat-screen, barely audible above the din of a generator that would roar into action every evening for two hours whilst families huddled around and watched the news, soap opera or football.
I called out again and again, delivering with false joviality the standard daily greeting that by now even Colton, who spoke no Portuguese, could recite.
“Hello there! We are a group of gringos travelling down river by canoe, can we talk to you…please?”
This small home in front of us would be unlikely to host us, but at best we could get some information from them as to where the next village would be. We could all feel the hidden eyes on us. A breeze rustled through the thick grove of açaí palms that walled in the lonesome homestead from the surrounding jungle. The decking was scattered with the usual artefacts of Amazonian life: wicker matapi shrimp traps, fishing nets, woven baskets for collecting açaí berries, empty gasoline containers, an assortment of mechanical parts from a rabeta boat engine.
Two days earlier, we had arrived in a village to an extremely cold reception, something previously impossible to imagine on our journey through Brazil. It took us hours to persuade them of our innocent intentions and get permission to camp in an old church shack.
Later, as we sat drinking açaí with them, they explained their reaction to us. The night before a nearby homestead had been looted by a four man posse, and when the father and son resisted they both received a shotgun blast to the chest. They both died there on the decking, where each afternoon they would have mended fishing nets together, gutted fish and watched the river flow. I held the image in my mind when paddling, imagining the blood dripping down through the decking and the chickens coming over to peck at it whilst women cried. Somewhere in a market in Macapá, Breves or Belém their little TV set would be being sold, and some cachaça rum bought with the tiny amount they had robbed.
Word of the father and son murder had spread on the jungle grapevine and it did not take long before somebody downriver radioed in that four suspicious men were winding their way in and out of the islands. We had no motor and were paddling — itself an activity that prompted questioning. To our horror we were suspects and a few hours ago we had been chased down by a heavily armed police boat from the town of Melgaço. It was the nearest police station but still far away and it had taken them all day to find us amongst the many bends and channels. Luckily, it did not take long for the cops to realise they did not have a solid lead here and that we were, indeed, a group of strange but innocent gringo adventurers. They left us with a firm warning of pirates in the area and told us to paddle as fast as we can to reach some village downriver before nightfall.
There was still no sign of life in the shack. The silence was broken by a couple of dogs that appeared out of the jungle, making up for their late arrival with angry barks.
It was that time in the late afternoon when the man of the house would be out fishing and bringing in his shrimp traps. There would be a shotgun hung up behind the door, and right now his wife would be setting her shaking hands upon it. I begged into the silence for a reply.
“We just need to know how far to the nearest village and which channel to take.”
Then, finally, wooden boards creaked and a woman peered out from behind the door. She edged out on to the rotten decking raised high above the river, now at it’s annual dry season low. Beside her was a girl, probably eight years old. The girl carried an axe. If our situation had not been so dire, I am sure we would have laughed. The little child was in defence mode, and meant business. I began to talk, my eyes darting between the woman and behind her into the dark shadows of the hut to see who would be manning the gun, hoping it would not be a trigger-happy toddler.
Nervously, the woman directed us to follow the right hand bank, and fork off into a smaller igarapé creek, a short distance up which was a small community. We paddled off in hope that soon we would find it. Despite the simple instructions, the river with it’s splits and channels could never be trusted, so when we reached the junction with the small creek and saw another shack, it seemed like a sensible idea to approach it and check before we turned off into this mysterious channel. This time, we heard a woman singing so loudly and gleefully, we laughed and anticipated friendliness. She was totally out of tune, but inside the hut somewhere was a happy soul, and maybe they would help. A washing line with brightly coloured garments told of a happy family and the Brazilian tradition of never wearing dirty clothes, even if you live in mud and poverty. An old dugout canoe had been raised up on stilts and in it grew chilies and herbs. Once again, we announced our presence from the riverside and asked for help. Instantly the singing stopped. There was a scampering and then that strange hanging silence. We paddled on.
Soon thereafter we came upon a man frantically paddling a small dugout in the direction of what appeared to be the village. We picked up the pace to try and get close enough to talk before he inevitable bolted. Only later would we learn of the terrified thoughts going through our new friend Elias’s mind as he paddled for his life to get inside and grab his shotgun and round the family up. Elias did not take long to see us for what we were and our despair was soon turned into laughter as we feasted with his family on açaí and shrimp.
We set up camp in an empty shack next door to Elias’s home and stayed there two nights. It was Thanksgiving back in the US and a perfect spot to spend it, also allowing Eric time to shake off a high fever. I translated the spirit of this celebration to Elias and his family on behalf of my American companions. In reality, we had lost track of the actual date and it had not been Thanksgiving after all. But that did not matter, we were getting a lessons in high velocity shrimp peeling and feeling safe once again, learning about the Amazonian way of life and enjoying the kind of new friendships that make this whole expedition worthwhile.
Better still, we received a visit from the mysterious singing lady, who laughed as loud as she sang when she told us how far she had run into the jungle to hide from us. Word spread fast amongst the little homesteads along the bank that we were indeed travelling gringos and their fears fast transformed into classic Brazilian hospitality. The father of the young girl with the axe came to spend time with us too and we talked of tides, channels, and places best to avoid on our way to Belém. We needed to avoid the wide channels and huge bay crossings as our heavily loaded, open Ally canoes could get swamped by waves in conditions that more resembled an open ocean than a river.
Despite the frosty receptions in these backwaters, we decided to stick to our strategy of keeping away from the main channel and settlements, picking our way through the delta down shortcuts and small rivers and doing our best to befriend the little communities scattered along the way. We dreaded paddling in the dark but waking up before sunrise was now essential in order to stay on schedule. For large chunks of the day the tides now reversed the river flow and slowed us down dramatically.
As we made the final push towards Belém the crime threat increased as did our struggle against the strong Atlantic tides. But we made it through safely, with the force of Amazonian hospitality on our side. Our start point at Caburaí and the Rio Maú has become a distant memory, a trickling stream that grew into an ocean. There is a long road to walk ahead. Next stop, Maranhão.
A special thanks to Magellan GPS, whose Explorist device got us through some complicated navigation. And to Yellowbrick Tracking, which we use as our emergency communication lifeline and to transmit our live positions for you to all follow on our map page.
Story by Gareth Jones. Photos by Gareth Jones, Aaron Chervenak, Eric Yu & Colton Whittle.
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