By Ricky Skelton
Everything is relative. Nothing is ever a complete truth. People say that when travelling on the passenger boats up "The Big River", the best place to sleep is in the middle of the middle floor if possible. When you arrive on board, the first thing you do is find the best spot for your hammock (assuming you havent bought a cabin. As the cabins are sweaty cupboards with no breeze, this is not as sensible an option as it sounds). The boats are normally triple deckers. The cheapest place is the bottom floor with the engine. It is noisy, dirty, smelly and sometimes full of petrol fumes if the boat has an engine problem. Also on this level is the kitchen. If you have 90 Brazilians travelling up river for 2-7 days, they need a lot of meat. This meat is usually stored next to the engine, hanging from the roof in carcasses. Everything else transported is stored downstairs too. Including livestock such as the goat tethered out front.
The third floor (if it exists) is usually the bar/tv area. This means people watch novelas and films, or have some incredibly tasteless music playing, always at the volume that Brazilians like to have while standing around their cars drinking beer at the beach.
The middle floor (or the top one of two in our case) is the best place to sleep and worth paying the extra ten reais for a spot there. Usually. So armed with this local knowledge, the Brazilian couple hung there double hammock across the boat, halfway down alongside the middle pillar. In this way, they only have a neighbour on one side and can store all their gear by the pillar. What they didnt reckon on was being surrounded by alcoholic gringos. As the boat repeatedly broke down, the gringos did what gringos do in times of stress. They drank. As the journey from Belem to Santarem turned from 3 days into a week, it turned into a journey of legend. The poor Brazilian couple had to put up with people singing, falling over, breaking the boat, and especially shouting, from dawn to the early hours, every day. Their neighbour (who we shall call Steve) woke them up every time he climbed into his hammock above them, then in the morning disturbed their peace by shouting that he wanted his mum or anybody elses mum to help his hangover in language they hopefully didnt understand. They probably had moments of hating the fool on the journey.
The straw that broke the camels back, the moment that will make them realise that the best place isnt necessarily the best place to sleep on a boat happened towards the end of the trip. A very loud, very drunk Australian (who we shall call Dave) thought it would be funny to try to shake Steve out of his hammock to make him sick in the dark early hours. He grabbed the end of Steves hammock and bounced it up and down while shouting for Steve to get up. Somebody else shouting Steves name was his neighbour. Understandable as it was her hammock that was being turned upside down. The first person she turned to for help was the one shed suffered most from during the journey. Steve got out of his hammock to drag the drunken fool away and had to apologise for him. So Steve had turned from the biggest fool on the boat to a kind of hero. Compared to Dave. Like I said, everythings relative.
Previous articles by Ricky:
Brazil: Understanding Novelas
Brazil: Bus fires in São Paulo - always a bad thing?