I went inside and asked the staff if I could see their CD collection, but there was nothing better in there! No Bob Marley, no Jack Johnson, no bossa classics or MPB (musica popular brasiliero), just techno-bregga, modern forro (almost as bad), and some really REALLY tacky American pop.
Batting my eyelids and smiling sweetly, I inquired as to whether their CD player had mp3 capabilities, and if perhaps I could put something a bit more chilled out on? As a result of my charm and blue eyes (they get me a long way here sometimes), they allowed me to put one of my own CDs on and we switched to some reggae.
During the day we sunbathed and went swimming in front of the pousada. One of the waiters took a liking to me, and continued bringing me coconuts and flowers made from twisted napkins. When I was relaxing with my eyes closed, half asleep on the sand, I was suddenly bombarded by a familiar sound.
I sat up intending to use my new-found status with the love-sick waiter to get my music back, but soon discovered that it wasn’t the restaurant causing the sound. It was a car with its boot open, displaying enormous speakers that were probably more expensive than the car, now vibrating with bassy electronic rhythms.
And just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse…
The next day I woke up early to the sound of waves (one of my favourite things ever) and went walking around the town. The roads were all made of grass, and there were buffalo here and there eating it. The few people who were around watched us with interest, but few made attempts to smile or speak. That was ok – I was enjoying the tranquility of the tiny town and wasn’t particularly interested in answering 1000 questions anyway!
When I got back I found Carlos awake, and we had breakfast together. We sat on the beach enjoying bread, fruit, cake, coffee, and juice, happy to be on the beach and smiling to ourselves more than speaking.
Then the music began.
It started in the restaurant.
They call it Techno-bregga, and I can honestly say that in 10 years of travelling, to more than 30 different countries, I had never heard anything so awful. Picture this… you’re on a quiet Brazilian beach. The sun is coming up, it’s warm, there’s a light breeze, you’re eating a piece of pineapple. What kind of music do you imagine? Reggae? Bossa nova? Perhaps some light acoustic guitar?
Well technobregga is nothing like that. It’s loud, it’s fast, it’s electronic, it’s repetitive, and a lot of it is sped-up versions of Beyonce or Celine Dion songs translated to Portuguese and sung in a high pitch artificial voice. I thought… well, this could well be the end of any kind of enjoyment I had planned to have here.
I wanted to cry.
When the woman in reception realised that we weren’t going to pay the rate, she told us about a cheaper pousada further down the beach, so we descended to the sand and walked along until we found Sol Nascente.
It was really, really small and basic with the bathroom outside, but half the price of the other, situated right on the beach, and with a buffet breakfast included. I believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so being able to eat as much as I want in the morning is a big plus for me!
We dropped our things in our room, and ordered fish and fried macaxeira to eat at a table in the sand.
That night – purely by chance – there was a Carimbó display in front of the restaurant!
A group of dancers – four men and four women came down to the beach and the music began. Carimbó is a popular music from the state of Pará (which is where we were), in which the dancers simulate the man chasing the woman, who avoids him. The women wear circular skirts which they swirl around as they swing from side to side and spin around, and the men wear shirts of the same fabric as their partner’s skirts. The dance was really lovely… although I declined the invitation at the end when they called guests to join them!
We went to sleep early and happy, as there wasn’t much nightlife in this tiny town.
At this stage we were still in blissful ignorance about the music in Marajo. It was going to get much worse.
Around the size of Switzerland, Marajo is the largest island to be completely surrounded by freshwater in the world. Although its northeast coastline faces the Atlantic Ocean, the outflow from the Amazon is so great that the sea at the mouth is quite unsalty for some distance from shore.
We’d decided to limit our trip to the microregion of Arari (the area closest to Belem!), which included Joanes, Salvaterra, and Soure – in that order – and spend about a week there. The large boat took about four hours to arrive, and we boarded it with all our luggage.
It was a relaxing trip, and we enjoyed watching the forested islands go by as we drifted down the river. On arrival it was already starting to get dark, and we took a small bus at the port to Joanes, which was the closest of the three towns. We’d heard about a Belgian-run hostel with a good book exchange, and asked the bus driver to drop us there.
The hostel was beautiful, set on top of the hill above the beach, with lovely breezes, a comfortable outside social area, and really nice rooms with comfortable beds. Unfortunately – as is often the way with hostels that achieve first listing in the Lonely Planet –it cost twice as much as we’d expected! We were both on pretty tight budgets and really weren’t able to afford what they were asking.
It was already dark and we were still homeless.
After leaving the boat and hugging the girls goodbye, we caught a cab to the centre of town and found an internet café. I sent an email to Ricardo to let him know we’d arrived, and luckily, he replied almost instantly.
Not so luckily, he’d forgotten we were coming and wasn’t in Belem! He apologized profusely, but I realised it was partly my fault since I hadn’t sent a reminder email in the past few weeks.
Carlos and I posted a message in the Belem community group explaining our situation, and quickly received several replies from people offering to host us. Ah, how did I travel before I knew Couchsurfing? ;) We accepted the offer of a girl named Karla, who explained that her husband was travelling for business over the weekend, and she didn’t like being at home on her own. We organized a place to meet her, and she came to pick us up in the car.
Karla lived in a very small apartment in the centre of Belem with a small dog who was so jumpy she wouldn’t let anyone go near her, and who mostly stayed in the corner eyeing us suspiciously. We would share the sofabed in the living room.
Karla wasn’t really one for going out much, although she did take us to see some of the sights of Belem including the Teatro da Paz – a beautiful theatre built during the rubber boom some 100 years ago. We went to a quiet bar in the evening to eat fish, and had a couple of beers each before going home for a quiet night.
Realising that we probably wouldn’t see much excitement in the house of Karla, I suggested we go straight to Ilha Marajo the next day, and Carlos agreed.
We call it the Rizla game because Rizla is a brand of cigarette paper in the UK. You write the name of a celebrity on a Rizla, lick it, and stick it on the forehead of the person next to you so that everyone can see it except them.
Unfortunately, given that none of us were smokers, we didn’t have any Rizlas, so we had to employ a variety of methods including twisting paper into each other’s hair and using chewing gum!
Once everyone has their celebrities stuck to their heads, it’s a game of 20 yes/no questions. Am I a man? Am I an actor? Am I Asian? Etc. If the answer is yes, you get another question. If it’s no, the game moves on to the next person. The first person to guess who they are wins the game.
I was terrible, and didn’t win a single game, but it was all good fun anyway! Elvis, Monica Lewinsky, Shakira… the British girl continually guessed correctly and won nearly all the games, clearly having played this game many times before.
After the cachaça was finished, we went up to the upper deck and danced to the terrible forro music they were playing. We didn’t know how but it didn’t seem that important!
We slept well that night, and after 2 days of this, finally landed in Belem.
I’d organized for Carlos and I to stay at a couchsurfer’s place named Ricardo, and planned to contact him as soon as we found an internet café.
Unfortunately… things didn’t go quite as planned.
This time I was a bit wiser about the boat experience, and we arrived early to hang our hammocks up high. We also made a trip to the supermarket beforehand, to buy bread, crackers, vegetables, tinned tuna, and a large bottle of cachaça. I wasn’t into the boat food at ALL and I didn’t intend to eat it this time! We even learned that there was a small hotplate on board, so I bought some noodles and powdered soup mix as well.
On board we met two German girls and a British girl who were also part of the Couchsurfing network, and I was relieved to have the chance to speak some English for a while. I know I should have been learning and practicing Portuguese, but…. You know…
We spent a lot of time on the top of the boat, tanning our legs and chatting about our Couchsurfing experiences, reading books, and making macramé bracelets. During the night we opened the cachaça and some juice, and decided to play some games to pass the time.
We played a couple of different card games, but found that there was no place to sit on the boat where the wind didn’t continue blowing the cards off the table! We moved onto a few rounds of “I have never” (an evil drinking game) but decided we didn’t really want to get that drunk on the boat. Eventually moved onto ‘The Rizla Game’, which proved to be the winner!
In the evening we went back to the square to have another caipirinha. The area was full of ‘hippies’ , which is the common name given to artisans – travellers who make jewelry from macramé or wire, often with dreadlocks, and usually smoking their funny-smelling cigarettes. But these hippies weren’t smoking, they were running a clown skills workshop for children! It was a lot of fun to watch – there must have been 40 or 50 people in the square, and they were learning to juggle, climb rope, climb on top of each other, and twirl batons. The children were having a great time, laughing and trying to better each other.
The nightlife was pretty much non-existent after sundown in Alter do Chao, so we generally slept quite early and woke up early to appreciate the beaches.
After a couple of days, Juan had to leave to continue his journey, but Carlos and I decided to stay on a bit longer. We found a man renting out paddleboats, which I confess to loving, but the best thing was an enormous swan boat that awoke the child inside me. Carlos was too embarrassed to translate for me, so I went over the guy and asked him in portunhol how much it would cost to rent the swan boat.
After I’d closed the transaction I of course forced Carlos to join me in the swan, which he did without too much complaining. In fact, the boat was heavy, difficult to turn, and kind of a pain, but we did get some excellent photos from the experience.
After a week of this – fish, beer, caipirinhas, beaches – it was time to get moving again.
Back on the boat!
The next day we hired kayaks and went out to explore the area.
Alter do Chao is at the junction of two rivers, Tapajós and Amazonas, which don’t mix. Because of this, one side of the island has brown water, and the other side is bright blue. You can see from my pictures the huge difference in the water.
The size and shape of Alter do Chao differs hugely at different times of year, as the rivers rise and fall. In our kayak trip we came across the roofs of bars and restaurants. When we were there, only the thatched tops were visible, and as we got closer we found that refrigerators and other appliances had been secured to the ceiling with rope! Later in the year, there would be a stretch of beach here, and the these bars would be full of tourists sipping caipirinhas and eating fish.
In Alter do Chao I also discovered the key to the mystery of blonde leg hair. You see, ever since I’d arrived in Manaus, I’d noticed a lot of women in this region had dark colouring, but blonde arm and leg hairs. I’d found this odd, but of course – it’s not something you can ask a stranger about. In Alter do Chao we came across numerous women on the beach covering themselves with a kind of white cream and laying in the sun for a while, before washing it off in the water.
Seemed more complicated than waxing or shaving to me, but oh well… each to their own…
Carlos was the kind of guy who laughed at you when you make a mistake, and this drives me crazy. Don’t patronize me you jerk… it’s your freaking language, of COURSE you speak it better than me! Arrgghh! I stopped trying altogether because of the supreme irritation I felt every time he chuckled at my errors. And of course, with Carlos around, I didn’t HAVE to speak Portuguese. I make him translate for me everywhere, sending him to buy beers or speak to the staff when necessary. My Portuguese was not coming along at all, and I hadn’t even started looking at the book Suelem had lent me.
It was ok; I still had plenty of time…
The next day we pulled into Santarem, and the 3 of us caught a bus to Alter do Chao, which is only about an hour away. We found ourselves a cheap hotel where we all shared a room, and changed immediately into beach gear.
Alter do Chao was beautiful! In fact, in 2009 it was chosen by English newspaper The Guardian as the most beautiful freshwater beach in the world. The town was tiny, and the beaches were lovely. It was already afternoon so we didn’t do much on the first day, just ate a fish lunch on the beach (yep… I had already decided that I was going to at least start eating fish), and then had some caipirinhas in the square. Actually, this was my first ever caipirinha – a typical Brazilian cocktail made from cachaça, lime, and sugar.
Delicious. I saw more of these caipirinhas in my future.