Keith Irwin

Amazon Riverboat

Apr 17, 2014

Brazil, Hitchhiking, Travel, Latin America 2014


This is part of my story of hitchhiking from New York to Buenos Aires and back, which I did in 2014. I may publish the entire tale in a book someday. Until then, you can read it for free here. To see other parts, check out Latin America 2014. 

April 17

On my last night in town, I packed my bags and went out with Todd and some other folks. We saw some live music, which was cool, and stayed out late, until the early morning or so. This was part of my plan. The girl who'd driven us to the bar dropped me off at the docks, where I was going to look for a boat to hitchhike while waiting for the passenger boat. But all the boats were passenger boats, going to various remote places. All the boats were wooden, some small, like tug boats, others were several stories tall and reminded me of old steamboats. 

When I saw that hitching a ride was impossible, I got directions to the boat going to Santarém. It was a big one. The gangplank was up and I didn’t see anyway on, so I took a wide step from the dock to some tires hanging off the side rail. Then I climbed up and in, backpack and all, like a stowaway. Some people saw this, but nobody complained. 

I was on a big storage deck, with a few cars with flat tires and some sacks of goods. I looked around for someone in charge. There were some folks who looked like crew sitting around, so I went up to them. My Portuguese, which was still speckled with Spanish, was passable at this point. 

“Tickets?” I asked vaguely. 
“To where?” asked the man with the tickets. 
“Santarém,” I told him. 
“150 reals,” he said, without looking at me. 

I considered it for a moment. “I have 100,” I countered. 

He accepted my offer quickly. “It's good.” I paid and was given a ticket and carbon copy. Then I asked when the boat would depart. 

I had a few hours of free time. I decided to set up my hammock. Upstairs, I found another large room, but this one with hooks in the ceiling to hang a hammock from. It was practically empty, so I picked two good hooks and set up shop. I left my bag trustingly below the hammock, and explored the rest of the ship. There were some bathrooms with showers, and a little dining room. There were some cabins, for those willing to pay for them, and on a third deck, a little open air bar in the stern. There was another hammock area on this deck, covered from above but open along the sides. Back on the first floor, I wandered down a ladder into the engine room and admired the machinery until I was asked to leave. 

I still had some sausages on me, but decided to buy more food for the journey, so I wouldn’t have to pay for it on the boat. I had checked my budget and I was spending money on this trip faster than I wanted to. I was going to need to speed up or spend less if I wanted to get to Argentina and back. 

I took my backpack and went outside. I went into an open-air market, which was starting to open up. I wandered around, but mostly saw produce for sale. It was tricky to pass through. People were hurriedly pushing wheelbarrows up and down the aisles. Eventually I found a bakery and bought a big bag of bread. 

I had money, but when I passed an ATM, I got some more, not knowing when I’d see the next one. Then I went outside and saw a food cart, where I got a few cups of sugary coffee and some bolas. Bolas are sort of thick cakes that make decent breakfast. I stood by the cart and watched the market’s chaos. It was cloudy, but starting to get light out. I was sobering up, but becoming tired. The coffee helped. 

A photo of the author, reclined in his hammock
Me in my hammock

Back on the ship, I rested in my hammock. I knew I should write, but I was weary. I laid and looked out at the misty morning. I was on the port side, and had a good view out the window, when nobody was walking along the aisle. It began to drizzle lightly. More and more people were boarding. I had to move my hammock to accommodate the influx of passengers. The hooks for each hammock spot were only a foot apart, and I found it hard to believe that we were expected to cram into such small space. Before I knew it, I was bumping shoulders on both sides. I measured the room at twenty-eight paces long and six paces wide. And in that space, there couldn’t have been fewer than 400 hammocks! I raised mine high to have a little more space. 

After some hours, we finally set off. 




A photo of the author, reclined in his hammock
A boat, like ours, which we passed

I spent the first day of the journey half awake. I napped, but was often awoken by children running around. It was all families around me, no young people. I wrote some letters and spent some time writing notes, but I didn’t get as caught up as I’d have liked. To be honest, I spent more time reading my book. It was a cheeky tale about a hundred-year-old man who escaped from his retirement home, unknowingly stole a briefcase full of money, and was on the run from some gangsters. It was written by a Swede, but I had a German translation. 

I had trouble sleeping in the hammock, but didn’t have a choice. I sustained myself on my bread and sausages, but when a crew member saw that I wasn’t going to the galley, he gave me a free meal pass, for which I was quite thankful. There I discovered a cooler with free coffee. Back at my hammock, I decided to take a shower, but realized I had left my towel in Manaus. 

I had gotten a window seat, but there wasn’t much to see. We stuck to the middle of the river to take advantage of the current, so the jungle could only be seen in the distance. We stopped at a few towns along the way, to take on passengers and unload cargo. 

A photo of many hammocks, intertwined
Hammock city

Turbo Santarém