Miles traveled: 10,524 (16,937 km)
Brazil Pt 1: Remember… Don’t talk to strangers.
Claudio and I were looking forward to our Brazilian adventures. We had 1,000 km to cross before reaching the Amazon River. There we would take a ferry down river 1,500 km to the city of Belem. Then there was an unimaginable amount of road from Belem to Salvador da Bahia, where we would meet Maria Jose and stay with some friends.
We had barely entered Brazil when I decided to pick up two Russian hitchhikers hanging out at the border. They could have been, drug smugglers, KGB, Russian mafia or harmless hippies. I consulted with Claudio and he said it was fine. I figured that with all the help we had received on our journey thus far, helping out some fellow travelers seemed appropriate. They gladly jumped into our “Chaski” and we pushed on south to Boa Vista.
Igor was a Buddhist traveler, living life simply. With a total budget of $100 per month and a rice and porridge diet, he had been hitchhiking for more than a year around the world. He had no more than the clothes on his back and a small backpack to his name and simply told us he felt free. He had no attachments to the past or future and said he had never been happier in his life.
Dennis on the other hand, had just spent $13,000 purchasing Ecuadorian citizenship to make traveling easier. As we drove, he would occasionally pass us his headphones to share California dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas or a Russian tune from his MP3 player. His dream was to buy a large beachfront property in S. America and build a hotel or resort that would function as his refuge from the icy-cold Russian winters.
In Boa Vista we said “Dasvidanya” to our Russian friends. And within minutes, another complete stranger presented himself. It was around 9pm and we were trying to withdraw money from an ATM. Diego was curious about our car, but given the circumstances I was wary. He could have been conning us, making small talk while friends arrived to rob us, or suckering us into some other trap. On the other hand, there was the possibility that he was truly interested in meeting two travelers from California.
As it turned out, it was his birthday, and he was on his way home with his 10 month-old twin daughters when he couldn’t help but be intrigued by our colorful car. He was inspired to talk to us and learn more. When the ATM failed us, he took us to another bank (I know…how could we follow a stranger to a bank at night…but his babies were too cute) and then he took us to an awesome restaurant to stave our hunger. As if this wasn’t enough, he offered us room to camp in his yard since his home was too small for us to sleep in. We couldn’t believe what was going on. We met his wonderful wife and became a part of their family for the next two days. They gave us food, shelter and family; and in return, only accepted a piece of our hearts. Diego helped us fix el “Chaski” which had been acting strangely and on the morning of the third day it wasn’t enough to tell us how to find the freeway towards Manaus; he kindly escorted us all the way to the edge of town.
Claudio and I drove from Boa Vista with our hearts just a little bigger than before (and we are no Grinches), humbled by the beautiful friendship we now shared with Diego and his family. I wondered if this was pure luck. Was it our energy that attracted these amazing interactions? Was it el “Chaski” and our waste vegetable oil journey that inspired others? Was it good kharma or was it just the way Brazilians were?
Brazil Pt 2: The Amazon
At first the Amazon was a wall of forest in the distance, one kilometer from either side of the road. Large cattle pastures separated us from it or it from us (depending on your point of view) for nearly 300km. My desire to hear the jungle buzzing remained unfulfilled. Even though we were already surrounded by it in its enormity, it didn’t feel like a rainforest. It felt more like a big farm with tame crickets.
At 10pm we reached the edge of the indigenous reservation. Diego had forewarned us that the road would be closed at night and had instructed us to make camp here. The Waimiri Reservation is only open from 6am to 6pm and visitors are asked not to stop when passing through. We turned off the engine in the parking lot outside the reservation. We stepped outside the car to stretch our legs after more than 12 hours on the road and were greeted by the deafening roar of millions of insects, birds, monkeys, bats and other creatures of the wild. We finally found ourselves face to face with largest rainforest in the world. The Amazon! Too tired to eat, we climbed inside our mesh insect shield and were lulled to sleep by the humming forest.
It was 5:59 am when I opened my eyes. Claudio was already awake. It was barely past daybreak and Claudio pointed at the dark clouds approaching rapidly. We jumped into action, threw all of our belongings into el “Chaski” and rolled up the windows. The fastest we had packed yet. Less than two minutes. I started the engine and pointed the steering wheel into the dense jungle as it began to pour in true rainforest fashion, and from one moment to the next, we were immersed in lush foliage, lunar-size road-craters and swamps. The jungle’s canopy hung 200 hundred feet overhead and water fell from the sky as if the ocean were upon us. The jungle was thick, impenetrable, beautiful, green, magical and thriving.
The only signs of the native Amazonians were the road signs they had erected asking drivers not to stop inside their reservation or run over their animals. I wondered how the indigenous Waimiri lived with their environment. What animals did they hunt? What fruits, herbs and roots were edible? How did they build their shelters? How was their relationship with outside world? While the landscape was visually enthralling, I couldn’t imagine living here. If the truck broke down, how long would Claudio and I last? I wanted to get out and walk and yet knew better. It was pouring and I wanted to respect the wishes of the Waimiri. It was inviting but inhospitable at the same time and let our imaginations run with the road.
200km and 6 hours later, there were no signs marking the end of the reservation, just clues. First, the craters in the road became smaller, less frequent and then almost nonexistent. Slowly, the forest returned to its place on the horizon as groups of cattle appeared in the countryside. What was trees and vines, birds and frogs, epiphytes and ferns, ocelots, monkeys, sloths and snakes, was reduced to grass and cows. Occasional houses and farms transformed into gas stations and towns; the two-lane road became an eight-lane highway, packed with cars and trucks. The asphaltization or ‘civilization’ of that green power was taking place much faster than I had anticipated. Everything began to move so quickly around us it seemed as if we moved in slow motion. Cars now raced in every which direction. Advertisements and factories crowded the horizon as we finally found ourselves in Manaus. Then, before we knew it, we were completely lost in the industrial, ‘zona franca’, port-city metropolis sitting at the intersection of the mighty Rio Negro and Rio Amazonas.
Geographically, Manaus is completely isolated; it’s like an island of cement in the heart of wilderness. We were 1,000 kilometers south of Boa Vista, via the virtually untraveled road we had driven. We were 1,500 km from Belém, our next destination, only reachable by riverboat. It seemed like a strange place for a city of nearly 3,000,000 inhabitants.
While less than halfway into our Amazonian travels, the clash between modern civilization and indigenous reservation raged in my head. If one could imagine the inverse force of our weight on the earth, I could feel the weight of the earth on the soles of my shoes. We measure weight in pounds and kilos. We know how much we can carry, the maximum load of an elevator, the breaking point of rope, but do we know how much of our burden the jungle, river or planet can carry. What seemed like a harmless road brought the cows and farms further into the jungle. It was the same road that took the trees out. It was the same road that had brought me here, to see for myself what was taking place in this magnificent Amazonian place. I tried to imagine the whole of the Amazon left alone. Would it have been better that we didn’t meet? But it was too late. I had already felt its weight on the souls of my feet and would never be the same, its lasting impression already making its impact on me.