Chapter 2: Welcome to the Jungle

Tudo Bem From Belem

By on September 23, 2009 in Welcome to the Jungle // 20 Comments

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This is my first full day in Belem at the mouth of the Amazon river and at the edge of the jungle. So far I have assembled my bike (with some issues), figured out the land line (SAT phone is having issues) and took a quick ride around this huge city.

During the flight my bike wasn´t quite handled carefully and both my wheels have some large gouges in the rim. This could prove to be quite a problem down the road.

Also, the SAT phone gets about 15-20 min of signal during any given hour and even then the call cannot be connected due to unknown reasons as of yet.

But the city is hot, huge, and bustling. I´ve visted Ver do Paso (I think that`s correct, means See the Weight) and it is a large market with all sorts of fish, oinments, and plants from the jungle.

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While sitting in the park tinkering with the phone I realized I was in the middle of a Leaf Cutter ant highway. They had enormous jaws and were carrying what looked like seed pods from a nearby tree.

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I´ve also tried some local Street Meat in the form of a chicken sandwich with some other stuff I didn´t quite recognize. It tasted good though, now it´s time to see if my body rejects its!

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I used an internet cafe to do my first post.The speed is decent considering the condition of the computer. If I can figure out a feasible way to use my Dell Inspirion Mini I will edit some video for upload.

Until then, Ate Logo from Belem!

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29th Birthday in Igarape-Miri

By on September 24, 2009 in Welcome to the Jungle // 27 Comments

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Not only is it my birthday but also the day of the Acai Festival in Iagarpe-Miri. This was my first full day of cycling and the Amazon is HOT!

I left Belem on a small boat (nearly losing my bike in the river while lifting it onto the roof) and for 2 USD I took a 2 hour ride through the twisting channels of a mid river island to reach the other side of the Amazon (sort of) to a town called Bacarena.

From there my distance calculation were way off and I stopped here, in Igarape-Miri beacuse I was about to die. Right before town I stopped at a shack bar for some cokes and saw my first Amazon monkey (chained as a pet and miserable looking).

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So far the road has been paved, there´s been a few hills but by and large it´s been flat.

The town I´m in tonight is on a river although my map doesn´t show it. The water front looks like something out of an old western.

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Before I left Belem this morning I checked out a herb store where all sorts of remedies from the jungle are sold out of bins, kind of like an apothocary you´d see in China Town. I was looking for Copaiba oil which is very good for all sorts of skin ailments.

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Well it´s time for me to drink as much water as possible and sleep. The sun sets early on the equator (6pm) so I will take full advantage of the night to sleep!

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Indians, Desert and 10,000 ants

By on September 27, 2009 in Welcome to the Jungle // 3 Comments

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The ride from Igarape-Miri to Cameta´ was fairly easy going. I started at dawn to beat the absolutely life zapping sun and made it to the river Tocantins where I recieved some daunting news.

As I waited for the ferry to cross the Tocantins (2 hour ride) I was surrounded by a group of curious teenagers and men. After describing to them what it was I was trying to do exactly I attempted to answer the myriad of questions. One man asked if my bike computer was for navigating by the stars!

Finally after the teenagers amused themselves with my lack of Portuguese ability (getting a kick out of saying rude things I´m sure) I asked a military police officer if he knew anything about the stretch of dirt road that would be my next leg. He said it was a good road for cycling.

However, an older man (with maybe less to prove than the tough officer) said that part of the road was desert and filled with indians, as he made a bow an arrow gesture.

Up until this point the rides have been extremely dry with water only at a few major river crossings by settlements. I have heard about the sandy roads during the dry season and was hoping the older man didn´t know what he was talking about.

I caught a small lancha (long canoe like motor boat) with one other guy that saved me waiting for the ferry for 2 more hours (every hour I asked it was two more till the boat came). The ride was cool and relaxing until my fellow passenger sat down next to me, smiled, faced the other way on the bench and relieved himself in a bucket next to me. Nice.

I strolled around the riverfront town of Cameta´and watched some kids spear fish through a hole in the concrete walkway that smelled like a sewer.

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I set up in a small hotel room, layed my panniers on the ground and went to the bathroom. Not ten minutes later I noticed little ants in a line from the window to my gear. I picked up my bags and saw, if I had to guess, over 10,000 tiny little ants over everything that had a trace of sugar or food on it. I banged my stuff on the ground and they fell off like dust. I made a sweeping motion with my sandals across the floor to kill them and hung my stuff on the walls. After about 2 hours they figured out how to reach them and I gave up, they seemed harmless enough anyway.

I shopped for a machete, toilet paper, and extra bottled water for the next day. I was nervous about the road and have never heard of anyone cycling this particular stretch. It was 160 miles to the next town of any note and I predicted a fairly tough go of it.

One Hundred Mile Day and a Baptism of Fire on the Fazendas

By on September 27, 2009 in Welcome to the Jungle // 45 Comments

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I started the day´s ride at 5:30am and left the pavement behind me for the first time. Even at this hour I was sweating like a madman as I negotiated the washboard dirt road with my 100+ lb rig. I was right to be nervous the night before.

The road leaving Cameta´was a hard packed waffle iron type grid of packed clay. By 8am I had made 25 miles and crossed a few clean looking rivers. I had high hopes I would have a decent ride and not need all the extra water I was carrying.

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By 10:30am I made my goal for the day and decided it would be crazy to stop so early, so I pushed on after a quick rinse in a small creek. I had about 50 miles to the next town on the map but figured I would camp in late afternoon by some river along the way.

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The road started to deteriorate (from bad to much worse) as I entered the fazendas. A fazenda is a huge cattle ranch run by either some sort of conglomerate or someone with some cash. Much of the Amazon forest is being cut down for these fazendas. Cattle ranching is an easy way to occupy land with minimal man power, but also one of the most devastating and least productive uses of that land.

When I say they are huge I mean the size of Rhode Island huge. After passing through Bailique (small village I was going to stay in) I didn’t see another village, house, river, stream, even shade for that matter!

The sand is more like deep dust (like 8 inches or more). It´s extremely difficult to ride in and even more so when your bike weighs almost 100lbs (extra water on board, thank god). I took a spill and banged my shin when my load shifted under me…it´s hard to correct a loaded bike when it slips in the sand.

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The wind was starting to leave my sails at this point. It was now midday, my water was over 100F (not very refreshing), and the road continued to stretch to the horizon with nothing but ranch on either side. Every time a truck went by it was a complete dust storm that entered my eyes, nose, throat, everywhere. Also, most truckers tend to drink during their working day. Cachaca (a cheap brand named 51 mostly) is a firewater sugarcane rum. They drink it warm in little plastic cups all day along with Choppe (a type of beer) until they feel like getting in their truck loaded with logs or cattle and slamming down the dust road at top speed.

There was no place to camp since I had left Bialique at 10:30 am. Even where there were trees, I’ve heard camping on a fazenda can be unwise. There are signs and fences the entire length of the ranches and the owners aren’t sympathetic towards touring cyclists.

I pushed on, draining most of my water, until I started to feel a fuzzy tingly feeling on my neck and face. I knew I was maxed out, my body temp was probably through the roof, my skin was blotchy, and I wasn’t sweating anymore. From this point on I road about 3-4 miles at a time before ducking into a body sized piece of shade or using my umbrella (that´s what they are used for down here, not the rain!). My water was warmer than my body temp ad didn’t cool my core and I new I was teetering on heat exhaustion (or most likely already there).

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I pulled over at one point and hunched over my handle bars. Two students in their early 20′s pulled over and looked at me in profound curiosity. I asked them where Joana Peres was (next small town on the map) and they told me it was 20km back! I just laughed. They took my picture, I took theirs and we parted ways.

I decided to continue forward, both my map and GPS said Joana Peres was 10-15 miles ahead. I figured they must be wrong, my information can´t be. The next few people I passed couldn’t tell me where Joana Peres was, they´d never heard of it, so I started to worry. Finally my GPS said I passed it by a few miles yet I saw no road. At this point I was totally out of gas. The sun was going to set within 30 minutes and the road started to get very hilly to make matters worse. I saw a radio tower about 3 miles ahead and decided there must be something worth riding to there.

When I rolled in (literally at 2mph in my second to lowest gear) I had rode 100 miles, was ready to cry, and couldn’t conjure up any Portuguese. The village looked completely run down, covered in dust, and everyone was droopy eyed drunk! It was a logging town, processing the wood cut from the fazendas. I went to the first road side stand and asked for something to drink (all they had was coke and rum, I opted for the coke). I choked on it and spilled it all over the counter and asked where Joana Peres was…the reply, 50km back! WTF!

I asked at a gas station if their was a dormitory in town (where truckers sleep) or someplace to pitch my hammock. The men just blankly stared, nothing, no words, no expressions, nothing. Finally after asking 2 more times a kid told me down the road on the right. I wheeled my bike about 200 meters and asked the next kid, drunk and about my age, where it was. He told me ask at the gas station I just came from.

I think he could tell I was at my ropes end and he walked me down to the local bar/general store where 5 or so men were drinking choppe and 51. I could tell from his demeanor towards them that they were in charge and he had to ask them first what to do with me. They seemed suspicious of a non-Brasileiro so I told my story in detail to them, answered their questions, and actually conveyed enough to impress them! They laughed and said I was part brazilian and approval was had. So down the road I went to the dormitory to get a hammock space.

My buddy on the left with road dust in the air.

My buddy on the left with road dust in the air.

As my drunk companion, Nonato, and I strolled I asked him the name of the community. It was called 50km (it isn’t that uncommon along these roads, tiny towns take the name of the kilometer marker they lay on).

We walked to the building (a shack with 5 doors and 5 locks, numbered 1-5) where Nonato explained my situation to the owner who was straddling his motorcycle. I new immediately by the way motorcycle man looked at me it was a no-go. I was ready to sleep in the dust on the side of the road by now. Nonato even looked stressed.

We went back to the general store and more conversation took place. It was decided that I would go with the doctor, who was drunk, and we threw my bike in the back of his pickup. Normally I would have protested but I had pretty much given up at this point.

However, after a few more minutes, I was saved by the shop owner and his wife. We rolled my bike through the yard gate and he took me to the back of the store, out to the side yard, and showed me a barrel of water to wash in (there was no white gringo skin even showing at this point). Next, his wife walked me to a room behind the store counter with clean sheets!

In 30 more minutes she had a 4 course meal of salad, chicken, rice, and beans made just for me, enough to feed 3 people. By this time I was in absolute heaven. The woman called her friends over so I could tell my plans and they could see the idiot American.

Woman of the house on the right.

Woman of the house on the right.

I socialized with the people out front while a man covered in dust and wearing only cutoff jeans drove his car onto the porch with his front bumper inside the store. He had a bum radiator and needed water or something. The mayor even stopped by and went on a 20 minute tirade about Lula (the president) and the state of Brazil, I understood maybe 60% of it, kinda. He wasn’t happy.

I went to bed relieved to be someplace besides the fazendas and didn’t even mind the cockroaches bigger than my thumb crawling on the walls (I noticed them when I heard the scratching noise they made scuttling around). I didn’t even mind waking up with fresh mice feces on the mattress next to me.

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Of course breakfast was made when I left my room and it was time to head off. It was an oasis that had truly saved me from those god awful ranches. As I left the owner and his wife told me to look out for their children work at the fazenda I´d pass through as I left town. Oh well.

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Kidney Splitting 105 Degrees in the Shade

By on September 28, 2009 in Welcome to the Jungle // 13 Comments

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After leaving the town of 50km I headed south to Tucurui with about 1L of fluids…bad idea. I have found that my perception of the conditions I´d be facing in the Amazon have been quite off. This has truly been a desert journey to this point.

I passed through more fazendas this past two days with a brief glimpse at some real jungle. The road tends to be much more manageable when there is growth close by. There´s less dust and more shade, yet still I´ve seen very little water to cool off in.

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As a matter of fact in the past week I´ve seen swimmable water on four occasions. The first was day one, the Amazon itself. Then two passes of the Tocantis river, and a clear looking runoff I rinsed in that I think has given me a skin rash. The rest has been drying cess pools filled with cattle filth and could barely be considered liquid.

I arrived in Tucurui which is the home of a giant hydro-electric dam. It was built in the 70´s with a little help from Agent Orange to help defoliate the jungle for its construction. While I was here there was a protest going on involving campers:

The occupation of the worksite has been organized by local residents who have been suffering since the construction of the dam 25 years ago and still today fight for the respect of their rights and proper living conditions in the region. Link.

Finally someplace to swim, the Tucurui dam of the Tocantins.

Finally someplace to swim, the Tucurui dam of the Tocantins.

I headed out a little late today and straight up a 6-7% grade for over an hour. I drank 2 liters of coke before I reached the top. From there it was some decent rolling jungle hills again until of course in early afternoon I hit more fazenda. The heat was absolutely beastly (105 in the shade, not sure what the humidity was) and there were trucks every few minutes kicking up dust that just hung in the air. Yet still nowhere to take a dip.

It is not fun wearing that in the heat but the dust is worse.

It is not fun wearing that in the heat but the dust is worse.

I now realize for the time being I have to change my plan. I can´t depend on camping, I can´t depend on water, I have to be ready to ride self contained until somewhere outside the fazendas. I prepared for a rainforest. I have water proof gear, a machete, a hammock for camping. I should have been preparing for absoulte waterless dust. I know it´s called the dry season but where are the rivers?

I arrived in Novo Repartimento and the true begining of the TransAmazonica for me. It is a dusty town (aren´t they all) that truly does look like a set from an old west movie, with internet access. I drifted in covered in dust with my bandana over my face in true cowboy style. After a few minutes some guys gathered around and I got one to take a picture.

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Tomorrow I expect more of the same but once it does rain this dust will most likely become impassable mud.