Chapter 3: The TransAm

TransAmazonica Speedway

By on October 03, 2009 in The TransAm // 4 Comments

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My first days on the real TransAm started in Novo Repartimento. Even though the official Transamazonica project was abandoned by the government the highway is definately still in use. Trucks speed by at break neck speeds on the average of 1 per minute on this section of the TransAm, and the hills nearly wiped me out.

I set out from Novo Repartimento after filling up my water and power washing the bike at a small shop in town. Like so many people I have met here so far (not all however) the owner was extremely nice and curious. They wanted to take a picture of me with my bike so I took one in return.

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Later in the day a truck driver pulled over just to take my picture. He was nice of course as well and all smiles and laughs. I flexed for the camera.

I made good time for the first half of the day with hardpack sections of road (albiet with dust flying everywhere) and only moderate hills. However, as the day wore on the hills became bigger, longer, and steeper. As usual, around 2pm the heat forced me to pull over into the shade, strip down to the bare essentials, and just sweat until my core temperature came down a few degrees. The combination of dust and sweat made my skin a frothy rust color.

Once again my map was wrong and my mark for the day, Pacaja, was about 30km farther away then I thought. This may not seem that far but when you are averaging 2mph uphill and 7mph for the day, under full effort, the distance seemed insurmountable.

However, I came upon a very nice river to cool off in. I watched the locals do their laundry, fish, and lounge while the Military Police showed up with there machine guns to have a look. This is a big deal for me, to find someplace to cool off in. As I write this it´s been over 10 days in the Amazon and I´ve seen 20 minutes of very light rain. I was re-reading the story of a German man who did the same ride back in 1999, much of his information I used to build my trip. He went during the same months as me and reported finding rivers to swim in every hour he cycled. I have been averaging less than one swim spot a day, and on this day I rode for 12 hours!

As the afternoon dragged on I asked everyone I passed how far Pacaja was ahead. The answer never seemed to get smaller, always 20-30km more! I swear this town was moving away from me at the same speed as I moving towards it.

Earlier in the day I stopped for some water in front of a Funeraria. This is where they make coffins and perhaps perform other duties for the dead. I couldn´t help but laugh when I took this photo, they were blasting Guns´n´Roses version of Knockin On Heaven´s Door, how appropriate!

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Eventually I reached Pacaja but not without its price. I rode way too hard for one day and would eventually pay for it.

I sat down for beans, rice, beef, chicken, and soda with some truck drivers. I told them I was going to Anapu next and they laughed and joked, “Oh, where the wood cutters shot the American” as they made hand pistols in my direction. They were referring to Sister Dorthy Stang.

(BTW, it has taken me 5 hours and 5 different “LAN Houses” to write this post with the few pictures included. It is very difficult to blog down here, each web cafe is like a highschool lunch room with teenagers yelling, tackling eachother, and playing video games. But mostly its the lousy connections that are frustrating!)

The Road to Anapu

By on October 03, 2009 in The TransAm // 6 Comments

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As I left Pacaja for Anapu I gave the bike a rinse, pumped the tires, oiled the chain, and realized my rear rack was cracked. I wasn´t surprised considering the weight I was carrying in water and supplies and the bone jarring washboard roads and viscious decents.

As steep as the hills are going up they of course are equally as steep going down. The problem is that you can´t just bomb down them due to the dust/sand, rocks, potholes etc. Some of them are downright technical. I made note that I was usually going only 10-12mph down these hills! What a waste of potential energy.

I left Pacaja an hour after sunrise and found myself pushing the bike uphill after only an hour of riding or so. Everyone told me the road became more tranquil after Pacaja…bullshit. By noon I was in a no name towned asking for a place to sleep I was so spent. However, after a few cokes and a power bar I felt I could make it to Anapu.

Since my map was off I actually was alot closer to Anapu than I thought. I had ridden the extra distance the day before. With that in mind it still took me 9 hours (or about 7 of straight riding) to “fetch my mark” as the sailor would say.

Anapu is where Sister Dorthy Stang was shot by loggers in 2005:

…at a remote encampment in the jungle about 30 miles from the town. Sister Dorothy – the most prominent activist to be murdered in the Amazon since Chico Mendez in 1988 – was shot six times in the head, throat and body at close range.

As with the death of Mr Mendez, a rubber tapper, the murder of Sister Dorothy has triggered waves of outrage among environmental and human rights activists who say she dedicated her life to helping the area’s poor, landless peasants and confronting the businesses that see the rainforest only as a resource to be plundered and which have already destroyed 20 per cent of its 1.6 million square miles.Link.

I rolled around town for a few minutes and found a hotel with a nasty manager. I attempted to repair my rear rack and work out some kinks in the rig. I was going to rest in this town for an extra day but decided to move on. The atmosphere was not that inviting and the town had little to offer.

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One Too Many Hills and First Night in the Hammock

By on October 03, 2009 in The TransAm // 8 Comments

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A steep long climb welcomed me back to the road the morning I left Anapu. After an hour or so I couldn´t believe my eyes…nearly flat road all the way to the horizon. I sat back and cruised at over 10mph for the first half of the day. I had my first flat tire of the trip and broke both my tire levers fixing it. I sleepy teenager on a motorcycle pulled over to watch me get frustrated over the mess.

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I took a picture in front of one of my arch enemies of this trip… a fazenda! The road was empty and I figured with such a flat road I would make good time for the day, no rush.

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By noon I made it to a small town I planned to spend the night in. However, I actually felt pretty good and decided I´d try for Altamira 60km away. If the road continued to be flat I could make it my dark.

Straight off the ferry the road climbed. Then it rolled and twisted and climbed and dropped. The heat increased to demoralizing highs by late in the afternoon (it gets hotter until the sun goes down) and I was now paying for too many hours on the bike. My body crashed quickly.

Soon I realized there was no way I´d make Altamira that day. I was in the middle of more fazenda country and couldn´t muster the strength to climb another hill. My water was gone and the temperature on my watch, while still on my wrist, read 107F. I don´t know if my wrist was cooling the watch temp down to 107 or increasing it to that level but does it matter? I was being fried.

I dropped the bike by the side of the road and walked 100m to some shade. I laid there and just thought “I give up.” I didn´t know what to do anymore, I was going to cook and dry out like a dead cow on the side of the road.

I laid there until my watch read 100F and I felt I could stand. I pushed my bike for about 45min thinking my goose was cooked until I came to a house. Around here they store their water in these blue 500 gallon plastic tubs that are up on a platform. I don´t know where they get the water to put in them but the one I came upon this day had a leak and water was dripping down.

I dropped my bike in front of the gate, let myself in and stumbled straight under the falling water. It was the most relief I have ever felt. The owener came out and I told him I needed water, that I was too hot, and so he had his wife bring out some cold drinking water.

He told me Altamira was still over 40km away and there was nothing in between. I tried to chit-chat awhile to see if he´d offer me a stay but it didn´t happen. On my way out I stood under the falling water once more.

I the took 2L of cold drinking water he had given me and pushed my bike about 10 minutes up the next hill. There was a small patch of woods next to a fazenda fence and I decided this is where the road ends for me today. There was enough cover from the road so as not to be seen and I took my chances with the fazenda rancher. Once darkness fell I knew it would be very difficult to see my hammock.

The night was interesting to say the least. As soon (I mean almost to the minute) that the sun went down every living thing imagineable starting making as much noise as it could. It was louder than a city street at rush hour, loud as a crowd of people, loud as my squeaky mangled bike. I thought I´d get about 4 minutes of sleep that night. However, after about 2 hours it quited down to just the crickets.

I laid in the hammock and sweat…for a long time. Night is 12 hours down here and it doesn´t cool off much until maybe 1-2am. At about 2:30 or so I woke up to a breeze flapping my rain fly and footsteps! I was next to a fazenda and the cattle had come to sleep fairly close to my tent but it wasn´t them. These footsteps were in the leaves, right next to me, and whatever it was sounded about my size!

I turned my headlamp on and shined it in the direction of the noise, which was only 20ft away or so…but the steps didn´t even hesitate. “Holy Shit,” I thought as I struggled out of my hammock (for those who have seen the set up this is a tangled mess to get out of) and stood in this small patch of jungle stark naked except for my bright blue rubber flip flops I bought the day before. I had been reading about Bushmasters and Jaguars for months, this was really happening. I held my machete out with my heart practically pumping out of my ears. I tired to see what was there but my headlamp just reflected off every vine, tree trunk, leaf, and branch directly in front of me. I couldn´t see a thing!

I looked down and noticed ants, hundreds, crawling all over my feet and legs but I couldn´t feel them with all the adrenaline and ignored that issue. Then I heard the footsteps directly behind me.

By this time I had found my high powered Streamlight tactical flashlight. I swivled around, machete in one hand and flashlight in the other with my headlamp on as well and my flip flops. About 10 yards away there it was….the size of a racoon. It was some sort of small tree dwelling animal gathering goiaba or something. As soon as I hit it with the high powered light it scurried. I had conquered my first jungle beast!

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I went back to sleep and didn´t wake up till sunrise.

Rest and Repairs in Altamira

By on October 03, 2009 in The TransAm // 14 Comments

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I packed my gear up from my first night out in the bush and took my sweet time pedaling the last kilometers to Altamira located on the Xingu river. After 9 straight days of cycling I was tired, almost 15lbs lighter, and needed food and rest.

After getting to Altamira and seeing the sights I made a fairly efficient stop at the post office to mail home some last items I won´t be needing and began looking for a welder.

The guys pictured above are awesome. Aluminum is not a common material to weld. There are welders on nearly every block down here but once they saw that my cracked rear rack was aluminum they said no, no, no. But these guys I found gave it their all. They called my bike “very fragile” which it is compared to the steel tanks they ride around here. They cut some scrap metal to length, hammered, pushed, pull, jammed, and scratched my bike and parts around until a solution was had.

The one on the right was in charge but luckily I didn´t completely let him have his way. I told him my bike frame was also aluminum (it´s in fact steel) and that it wouldn´t weld. He started scratching the paint off and banging it with metal insisting he could weld bars directly from my frame to supports he placed in the rack! I kept saying “Te Bom” trying to keep him from ruining my nice mountain bike in the process of securing my frame.

At any rate the rack was fixed, the guys were cool, and didn´t even let me pay them for their time, effort, and materials.

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I also replaced my broken kickstand at a bike shop and the kid their starting oiling every joint and bolt. I looked away for a second and he was oiling my disc brake pads! He must have thought they were somthing else, as I haven´t seen another bike with disc brakes down here. Even the motorbikes have dual drum brakes. I nearly tackled him while tryy to say that these are disc brakes, no oil. I quickly dapped the oil away with my shirt. This could have spelled big trouble for my stopping ability for a long time to come but luckily they were still working well.

I spent much of the day washing myself of the rust colored dust. It stains everything. My clothes look exactly the same after a cycle through a real washing machine. My finger nails and toe nails look like I had henna dye all over them. Even my eyelashes and lids have a rust colored tinge like eyeliner. I can´t seem to scrub them clean. I wonder what my lungs look like.

The SAT phone has been working well and I made a few calls while at a bar by the river (you need a wide open sky to use it). I was next to a family of obvious native indian decent. The Xingu are a tribe in this area that still retain some of their heritage. While this family had strongly unique features and skin tone they had complete western clothing and haircuts. I think they found the American on his big phone with his feet up having a beer amusing.

I also have been eating as much as I can these rest days. I go for cookies, pints of ice cream, the beef/rice/chicken/pork/beans from the churrascaria, and the street vendor´s X-Tudo, my favorite.

What the hell is an X-Tudo you ask? Well, it is grilled in the back of a truck on a hot plate, served in parks and street side at dusk, and consists of:

  • hamburger
  • fried egg
  • 2 hot dogs
  • slice of fried ham
  • cheese
  • bacom/lettuce/tomato
  • fried potatoe shavings
  • mayo
  • hot sauce
  • ketchup
  • on a bun!

As a matter of fact I am going to go look for one now!

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Rolling Green Hills of the Cacau Farms

By on October 05, 2009 in The TransAm // 3 Comments

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I left Altamira, X-Tudos, icecream, and beer behind me and hit the road again towards Medicilandia. I entered cacau farmland which is at least visually more appealing than cattle fazenda. While resting in a roadside hut I had the chance to speak to one of these farmers.

Everyone in Brazil is pretty pumped right now that Rio de Janeiro has been chosen as the site of the 2016 olympics. This is mostly what this farmer had to talk about after he came to investigate me lounging on a bench in the shade at the edge of his land.

He told me he works the cacau fields and pointed adjacent to the small house he lives in with his family. I asked if the land was his and he said, “Oh, no. I just work it.”

He went on to complain that´s its been so dry and farmig wasn´t easy with all the dust. I asked when the rain would come, and he thought either December or even January.

From what I understand cacau farming is still not a sustainable use of the land, although better of the evils when compared to cattle ranching. Eventually, the soil will probably be too dusty to be profitable at all.

As I continued on I saw a sign (of which I´ve seen many other similar signs) showing who does own this land…Banco da Amazonia.

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(Side note: as I typed that last sentance a cockroach climbed out of the keyboard. Ugh.)

I made it to Medicilandia uneventfully and had a dinner of various grilled meats, something that looked and tasted like chicken feed, and an unkown juice served in a used plastic cup. I then sat back and watched the drunken Sunday night antics of a small town split down the middle by the TransAm (the amount of people driving dirt bikes and the level on intoxication of some of these drivers is truly awe inspiring.)

Crankin´It Up a Notch With Some Help

By on October 05, 2009 in The TransAm // 14 Comments

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I left Medicilandia about an hour before sunrise for two reasons: I was sleeping above a rooster and the dogs in this town like to start fighting at 4:00am.

The mornings are by far the best time to ride. It is much cooler, the sun is low and at your back, and all around it´s fairly pleasant. This morning was cool and damp with some long stretches of jungle reserve on the left side of the road.

I was hunched down laboring up a hill when two guys on a motorbike start idling beside me. This happens all the time and at this moment I was in no mood to talk so I ignored them and ground away at the peddles. Of course the typical questions come, “Where are you going, where did you come from, where do you live” etc. Then, the driver puts his hand on my back and starts gassing the bike up the hill.

Right away I am laughing my ass off and trying to keep the bike straight through all the ruts and rocks. Once we reach the top he gives me a good shove and lets me steer the downhill. Then he times it so when I start to slow on the next up hill there he is with the assist.

I have to peddle like a madman to keep the momentum up enough on the uphills to make the process work but overall this went on for 30-40min! I was exhausted from steering and peddling as fast as possible but definately made some good time.

On at least a few occasions the road made the bike and motorbike bounce together, which would have spelled a hard take down, but my bulky panniers kept the handbars from tangling and no harm was done. A fun way to roar through the countryside, if not a little dangerous!

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As I said before there was about a 4 hour stretch of jungle reserve on my left side today (the otherside of the road was grazing land). I have seen so little real jungle up close it was very nice for a change. As soon as the reserve ended, marked by a sign, a cattle fazenda started, of course.

Tonight I am in Uruara, and in the next series of pics and posts to come you may see me with my new cowboy hat. I took a look at the tops of my ears in the mirror and noticed they looked almost black. Figured the proper head gear was in order considering my constant cowboy surroundings.

Rollin Brazilian Style

By on October 06, 2009 in The TransAm // 9 Comments

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With only 37 miles on my agenda for today I had time to take it easy. I tested my new Brazilian light weight woven cowboy hat, cracked open a Schin lager on the road, and watched the trucks roll past.

I now find myself in the one horse town of Placas. There isn´t much to see or do in this town but I did notice a traveling circus with a Big Top set up just behind the main drag. With a little luck things will get lively later on.

While climbing a hill today I stopped to take a picture of a perfect example of the “soil” conditions typically found in the Amazon. It´s easy to see that all the life that occurs in this soil is in the top few inches, everthing is recycled almost perfectly above the surface. If you scratch just a little deeper you´ll see that below lies hard lifeless dust and sand.

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Once the fertile top layer is cut, burned, and dragged away there´s not much left to work with… and biking through it sucks too!

Well I think I look the part of a Brazilian Gaucho, maybe minus the skin tight spandex cycling shorts.

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This Picture Was Very Hard to Take!

By on October 10, 2009 in The TransAm // 7 Comments

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I spent three more days on the road from Placas to reach Itaituba on the Tapajos river. The road did not improve of course and everyday seems to add a new element to my riding misery. It starts with heat, then dust, then hills, then washboard surface and potholes, then traffic, then immense road construction and angry road greedy drivers all mixed together into the beatiful mess that is the TransAm!

I have a ten second delay option on my camera that I used to take the above shot (actually about 5 attempts before something turned out). I give alot of credit to Survivor Man, it is not easy to do your own shooting. I had to frame the shot, push the button, run back to the bike, get the monster rolling and hope I am in the right spot after 10 seconds has passed. The next challenge will be the riding away shot! I have yet to be successful uploading any of the video I have taken to Youtube. The internet connections down here are as bad as the roads.

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After Placas I reach the town of Ruropolis. I decide to wait at the junction of the road to Santarem, about 245km north, to see if I could hitch a ride for a side trip to this town on the Amazon. I saw a poster showing a nice beach and figure I have been making good time so far, maybe it´s worth checking out. I waited 4 hours with two other commuters before I give up and grab a hotel room which looks more like a cell with no windows and painted olive drab green. It smells like a zoo cage and my cycling clothes add to the musk!

After two X-Tudos and some ice cream (I´m still losing weight) I see my hitchhiking companions on a bench by the bus station. I guess they couldn´t get a ride that night.

Right in the middle of town there is a huge tree left over from the original jungle that was long ago burned down. Everyone once in awhile you´ll see some of the old growth still standing. You can see from my bike placed in front of it and the cyclist just to the left how big these guys are. Just beyond this tree I watched two kids start a brush fire in a field next to their huts while 4 horses ran around it jumping and kicking eachother in the face. I think they were after the one female horse in the group. The foursome ended up rampaging down one of the town streets bumping into fences and light posts. I was in the middle of a SAT phone call and didn´t get any pictures of course.

The next leg will bring me to Itaituba, but only after another night in the bush.

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Pacas That Go Bump in the Night

By on October 10, 2009 in The TransAm // 10 Comments

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From the fires and horse battles of Ruropolis I headed further west into more hills. I think the most memorable part of my journey will be the endless hills of the TransAm. I passed a hunter during the day with the creature that had woken me in a naked frenzy many nights earlier. He had bagged two and called them Pacas. In the photo we see the white underbelly of one, both were beheaded.

Paca foraging at night

Between Ruropolis and Itaituba was about 100 miles of straight up and down. I had the beginning of a sore throat and runny nose but made 60 miles in nearly 8 hours. The road had some fairly pristine scenery in the beginning that eventually decayed into one of the longest construction sites I have ever seen.

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Towards the end of the day I was into this construction area of the TransAm (BR-230). There is an effort to greatly improve a North-South route to connect the ports of Itaituba and Santerem with some of Brazil´s more southerly areas and the good produced there. The work is well under way with the TransAm tripling in width through this area, drainage pipes are being dug in, and some actual principles of civil engineering are taking place by reducing the ups and downs of the highway.

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I duck into a patch of jungle, hide my bike close to the road under some palm fronds, and head into a secluded spot for the night. I cooked some Brazilian brand Ramen noodles with a can of Vienna sausage that I hacked open with my machete…who needs a can opener? Immediately there are bees crawling all over the opened food, but they don´t seem interested in stinging me.

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Ahhh, a campfire in the jungle. To help you understand what this is like imagine cooking stirfry in a sauna. It sucks. So does eating piping hot food in this climate. I probably sweat much more water out from cooking and eating than I take in from my soup. I drank two liters from my Platypus bag and still barely urinate. This is probably a large part of my weight loss.

I´m only woken once in the night by footsteps in the leaves but am fairly confident it´s nothing dangerous. I got out of the hammock to try and take a picture of the beasts in action but couldn´t see a thing. Overall a decent night out and quite comfortable in the hammock, except for the heat.

The “hello” gesture, or rather gesture for nearly anything in Brazil, is the thumbs up. I kind of dig it, old men walk by and just give you a thumbs up out of the blue  as if to say, “Keep on keepin´on.” I gave this night a thumbs up dressed in my fashion catastrophy.

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The morning I left my campsite I resumed the march of death through the construction. I made some of my slowest progress to date averaging about 6mph. The surface of the road was very rough for a bicycle from the construction vehicles and the traffic was heavy with Big Rigs bringing in what looked like topsoil to cover the dust. They also trucked in water to spray the soil before packing it down with the waffle like roller machine. Also, I was nearly run off the road then given the finger by a moto-taxi. Not a fun day to be a cyclist in Brazil.

The construction reached all the way to Itaituba, or the ferry that crosses the Tapajos river. I will rest for at least a few days in Itaituba. After 17 days of cycling with one rest day I have a fatigue in my legs that I have never felt before. My morale was also drained from the endless construction mess.

Oops! I think you missed one.

Oops! I think you missed one.

Itaituba: A Transvestite, Tattoo Face*, and a Thorough Toothbrush

By on October 10, 2009 in The TransAm // 18 Comments

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When I reached the Tapajos River and the ferry to Itaituba there was a makeshift road block and a protest taking place. Evidentially cyclists were immune from the protest and I crossed with some minor harassment from a very tactile Tranny on the ferry boat. I don´t think spandex shorts are common in rural northern Brazil and maybe I´ve been giving off the wrong impression!

*Correction: He wore semi-permanent facial paint, not tattoos. This is typical among Indians of the Amazon, usually a skilled learned by the females of the tribe.

I was polite enough but had to make it clear I wasn´t interested in sharing a beer or anything else with this man. I found it amusing if not a little annoying being as tired as I was. I´ll have to keep in mind that I must look absolulety rediculous to the average passer by. God knows I attract enough looks everytime I roll into a town.

The next part of my trip I have been looking forward to and fearing since I first started planning. It starts with 180km (or over 100 miles) of pure jungle reserve with no people, houses, farms, supplies, food, help, anything. I spoke with a truck driver who of course said there are lots of mosquitos (so far I have barely seen insects besides roaches and ants), snakes, and onças (pumas). He tells me the mosquitos start just 20km west of town but he doesn´t know why?

I have been going over my gear with a fine tooth comb making sure everything is in good repair for the next leg. I had my bike cleaned quite professionally down by the river, not knowing what I was getting into. I went looking for a hose and parked my bike to use one that I found. This was a car wash area however (unknown to me, just a hose running up from the river) and for 5 Reals (maybe 2.50-3.00$) a man cleaned every centimeter of the bike with a toothbrush. It took him over an hour but the bike has never looked better! I gave him double what he asked and was very pleased to see all the dust and grime cleared from my chain, gears, and other components.

While this was going on I walked across the street to a bar for a coke. It was 8am and for the first time I saw a truly terrrifying sight.

The bar was blasting Brazilian techno music and had two patrons, myself and the man in the corner. He was at a table with a large beer in front of him. There he sat, sullen, in the darkest corner just watching. He was an Indio with a completely tattooed face, in the traditional style of this area. He had his hair done in what might be called a “faux-hawk” back here in the states but other than that was dressed like me, tank top and shorts. Of course I didn´t take a picture, and he looked in no mood or state to oblige anyway.

The end of his nose was blacked in completely with large black circles around his eyes, giving a skull like impression. From his mouth raking back towards his ears were straight lines that looked like whiskers and on his forhead were a series of vertical and horizontal lines that made for a menacing appearance.  He swaggered down the street after about an hour in the bar and I watched him the whole way.

After this stop it could be a very long time before I reach internet access again. Today I am going to shop for a spare water container even though I´ve been told there are many rivers along the way. Jacareacanga will be the next town of any stature where a great many indians live, many with a drinking problem I´m told.

I need rest and food for now so until then I am taking it easy!

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