From Manaus to Xixuaú

6 p.m in Rio, 15° C and a light rain. I'm rushing to Santos Dumont airport with my luggage carefully distributed over three light bags. Traveling only with hand luggage has become almost an obsession and this time more than ever. Having decided not to stay overnight in Manaus but arriving the same day of our boats departure I cannot risk to loose my stuff.

With my friendliest smile I walk up to the TAM-counter and show my light blue bag with some clothes in it to the lady, 4 kg, no problem the limit for hand-luggage is 5, I can take it. She hasn't noticed that all the heavy things are tightly packed in a small black bag hidden on my back...
Touché, I walk away and pack everything together again. 
The plane is bustling with business-men and women, laptops, I-pads,I-phones, Blackberries. All kind of electronic utilities and un-utilities fill the air of the small plane with artificial sounds. I rejoice on the idea that soon I'll be leaving all this behind.
Stop-over in Brasilia, a chaotic lounge and our flight to Manaus is obviously late. I try to kill time reading and observing my fellow travel partners. It's always fascinating to jump from one airport to the other inside this huge country (I really don't enjoy airports and planes and their aseptical and anonymous atmosphere, I'd rather travel for hours by boat, train or bus, but often for timing reasons I cannot do without - this 1 1/2 months in Brazil will cost me about 10 flights, enough for an overdose).  You get a real feeling of the incredible melting-pot of races of this country. And in the last years, with Brazil's booming economy and growing concurrence between several air-carriers, air-travel isn't a privilege of the wealthy anymore, airports overflow with people of all classes, origins and races. I remember last year's flight from Cuiabà to Sao Paulo, in the company of a barefooted Indian couple with their small baby. They had no luggage at all, it was as if they were taking a bus for a short ride...

Finally our plane leaves Brasilia, I try to get a glimpse of it's particular architecture out of the window without success. The one hour delay won't be a problem, I had a gap of about three hours between my arrival time in Manaus and the meeting with my guide, Plinio.
The arrival in Manaus by plane is as spectacular as I remember from my last visit 20 years ago. I regret not having chosen a window seat...the lush green of the forest, the enormous rivers that bend in infinite curves and... suddenly there is the city, right in the middle of 'nowhere'.
After the hours spent in air-conditioned environments I gratefully step out of the airport into the humid, thick and warm air of Manaus. It's cloudy and starting to rain.
I stroll towards what looks like a bus stop, where a numerous group of persons stand closely pressed together under a pensiline trying to protect themselves from the rain.
From time to time a bus stops, but none goes to the 'centro'. After a while the bus finally arrives, not only mine...I manage to squeeze myself in a seat at the side of an enormously fat woman, holding my breath. I have no idea about the length of the trip to the center of Manaus. And it rains, I see the outskirts of Manaus through a wall of water. After about half an hour we seem to have passed the outskirts and I ask for information. Just in time, I have to get out at the next stop, in a trafficked road bustling with street vendors.
And now it really starts to rain, tropical rain, as you read in the books...after two minutes I'm soaked from head to toe. I know I'm near to Hotel Dez de Julho where I'm supposed to meet Plinio, but the water has flooded the streets, ankle-high. I give up trying to protect me under some tree or doorway, get off my shoes and continue barefoot until I reach the hotel. It's still early and I try to get my wet stuff off on the doorsteps of the hotel, I don't know why on earth I didn't enter...
Two foreign looking chaps step out of the hotel, look at me and one says: You must be the Italian lady that is coming with us to Xixuau! Well...not very ladylike at the moment but yes, that's me. Michael and Ebbe from Denmark, my travel mates. In reality I had understood it would be a bigger group going, but apparently it is only us.
They had made their travel arrangements with Erik, the head of the Danish section of Amazonia Association. First argument is the trip to the Buritizal, they ask if I'm coming too. I explain that I haven't decided yet, as it's my first time at Xixuau I would enjoy to get to know more of the community and going on the trip would mean staying only a few days there.
They need to buy hammocks and mosquito nets, but having traveled for the last 30 hours they are quite dazed and tired. I offer to accompany them after having asked Djalma, the guy from the reception, about news from our guide. Apparently we have plenty of time, to buy hammocks, to have lunch and so on. After a quick lunch at a kilo restaurant around the corner with Djalma we are off to buy the missing stuff.
The road Djalma has indicated to me is full of 'camelos' (street-vendors) displaying their colorful merchandise on improvised stalls. Thousands of pirate cds and dvds, the music screaming out of improbable loudspeakers is overwhelming. It's difficult to imagine that only a few km away there's only forest...
When we come back to the Hotel a guy arrives with a pick-up, it's not Plinio but anyway..his name is Dejacy (I'll find out on the return trip). It seems quite a drive to the small Sao Raimundo harbor where the slow boats that travel up and down the rio Negro depart. I have faint memories about a smaller city from my last stay in Manaus about 20 years ago, a lot of things have changed. We cross a bridge to the colorful and grubby port area at around 4 p.m..

A small street takes to the quay, it's crowded with cars, pick-ups, street vendors, carriers with all kind of stuff on their backs. Numerous black vultures observe the human mess from the roofs of the surrounding houses. 
Dejacy stops the pick-up in the middle of the street, it's obvious that we'll never get through and tells us to get out of the car.
A slender young man with grey hair takes my bag saying "I'm Castelo, you're with me" and rushes off towards one of the big river boats at the quay. The Danes hold on to their luggage, confused by the hectic rush around them. Baffled Mike asks me " Do you know him??", but he must be a guy from Xixuau, I answer confidently.
I'm not sure at all, but I try to hide my doubts, no need to make them worry. In fact we had all understood we would be traveling on the Certeza, the Reserve's riverboat, and there was no sign of it there. The boat we are boarding is evidently one of the normal wooden riverboats, already crowded with passengers and goods. There are several of them anchored at the small quay, with names as Tanaka, Vencedor.
They are two or three floored. The base floor is used for goods transportation. At a wooden table a huge bare-chested man keeps track of all the uploaded stuff on a handwritten copybook. The second floor is the area dedicated to passengers, where people hang their hammocks around big amounts of luggage stapled in the center of the deck. It's already crowded with women and children mostly, all lying in their hammocks. There are some cabins too, air-conditioned and without windows.
Castelo leads us to the second floor of the boat and manages to find a place to hang our hammocks at one extremity of the boat. We are the only foreigners on board and the last passengers to arrive apparently. While looking for a place to hang the hammocks he asks me if I'm married (well, I'm used to being asked this question when I travel alone...but not as quick!! Later we'll find out that Castelo had been told that he had to look for a couple and a solo traveler, he was just trying to find out who was the couple... After my negative answer he assumed that the two Danes were the couple and they were treated as such for a good part of the trip).
I'm very happy about my hammock place under 'plein air'...I'd have serious claustrophobia problems sleeping in the small cabins.
I try to 'sell' the advantage of sleeping promiscuously beneath the stars to the Danes, who had understood they would have slept in a private cabin and were not so happy about our logistics. I show them the cell-like cabins, Mike smiles, Ebbe retires to his hammock, not convinced by my explanation.
A not very tall man with an orange cap and a red shirt walks towards us, Francisco, Chico. He says he will be traveling with us too.
Here I am with two guides, two baffled Danes and still some good natured doubts about our destination...
I talk a bit with Chico, who seems quite happy that I speak portuguese, and when he mentions Chiara I finally know we are with the right people.
Suddenly I get a glimpse of a man winking like crazy in my direction from the boat anchored at our side. I don't hear his voice in the mess but on his lips I read the word 'Plinio'. There he is, our man!! After a vigorous handshake we engage a lively conversation. He too asks me about the buritizal and slowly I realize the place has a kind of mythical aura for the locals. He tells me that Chico is the pajè (traditional doctor) of the community and that he will be the leading guide for the buritizal trip, being one of the most experienced guys around. Just the hint of a smile runs over Chico's face. He doesn't live at the Reserve anymore and has been called for this special occasion.
Plinio says he will be coming up to Xixuau on friday together with a Swiss couple. He too is eager to come on the buritizal expedition and laughing he says that something will happen that will force us to postpone departure! They explain that we'll arrive next day in mid-afternoon in Moura, a small village on the rio Negro and from there we will take a voadeira to the Reserve. At night if everything runs smooth we'll be arriving. I walk over to Mike and Ebbe's hammocks and explain our route. They are already half asleep...only worried about safety issues for their luggage on board. I give them the common advice to look after it, especially while we are still at the port. Another passenger I happen to talk to during our trip will confirm my supposition, take care while on land and relax during navigation. Plinio says good-bye, Chico and Castelo rush off the boat to get 'a motor' (later I'll understand it's THE motor that will accompany us to buritizal).
At 6.30 p.m. the boat leaves Manaus, almost punctual. Castelo comes over with two young guys: they are the botanists from INPA, Camilo and Stefan, who are going to collect plant specimen during the expedition. We share a beer they had bought at a stall at the port and chat a little bit. They explain that on the boat there will be dinner, breakfast and lunch, included in the price. That's good news, I was just wondering between myself how I'd cope with 30 hrs on the river without any food, because I hadn't brought anything with me.
Darkness descends rapidly as usual in the tropics, while we leave the glittering Manaus behind. The boat glides gently over the ocean-like broad river, but the motor's noise is quite loud.
We wait for dinner at the other end of the upper deck.  On the open area most of the male passengers of the boat have crowded around a tv set and to my surprise they are all watching 'novela' (brazilian soap-operas) with great interest...while the women sleep. All riverboats are equipped with a big satellite antenna to entertain passengers during the long trips.
The slow riverboats, called 'recreio' run twice a week up and down river and are the only mean of transportation for the small communities along the river.

The rio Negro is one of the largest Amazon tributaries and the largest blackwater river in the world. It originates in the Colombian Andes and forms together with the rio Solimoes the Amazon river right beneath Manaus. It is navigable for 700 km. While the name Rio Negro means Black River, its waters aren't exactly black; they are similar in color to strong tea. The reason for this particular coloration lies in the slow speed of it's flow. Flowing through forested swamps and wetlands, vegetation decays in the water, tannins are leached out, resulting in transparent, acid water that is darkly stained, resembling tea or coffee.

Aside the bright lights of our boat, it's all dark around us. I cannot see the riverbanks, only imagine that it's all forest. A bell calls for dinner and Castelo asks me to call Mike and Ebbe. They are deep asleep and I decide to let them rest. Chico had told me there would be only a soup for dinner; it is a rich soup, with meat, pasta and vegetables. Women and children reemerge from their hammocks, nobody wants to miss the free food.
After dinner everything gets quiet, a strong cold wind hits the boat and I think gratefully about Chiara's advice to bring a heavy cotton hammock and a blanket to cover up.

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