Chapter 4: Adventure in the Amazon

Daring Escape After Jaguar Encounter

By on October 16, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 18 Comments

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Deep into the Parque Nacional Da Amazonia I came face to face with one of the Amazon´s big cats. I had just finished a 12 hour day on the bike. I was trying to make some good distance through some of the most remote part of the jungle on the TransAm. My camp was set up and nightfall was less than 30 minutes away as a thunderstorm was just beginning. Then I heard the punctuated roars.

*After some further research, I most likely saw a Jaguar. Pumas, or cougars, although similar in size, are not part of the big cat family since they cannot technically roar. What I saw that evening could in fact roar.

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I started my day on the bike at 5am using my headlamp to guide my way out of Itaituba. As soon as I left the outskirts of the city I slammed straight into mud. It had rained for a few hours the night before and left the road a sticky mess. After almost 1000miles and over 3 weeks of no rain it comes right when I am heading into the jungle.

As the sun came up the road began to dry out to some degree, however all day I hit pockets of heavy clay like mud. I quickly learn that is it impossible to bike in this muck. The tires pick it up and soon jam against the frame. The only option is to carry the bike through the mud and clean it off from the wheels to un-jam them until you can roll again. Definitely a painstaking process.

As I rode there were some nice views of the Tapajos river. Some of the nicest scenery of the trip so far. I entered the jungle reserve after about 5 hours of riding and gave a quick hello to the armed guards. They shook my hand, offered me breakfast, and off I went.

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The road gradually narrowed after a few hours. There is work underway to improve and widen this stretch of the TransAm. It once was barely passable by jeep but now sees more regular traffic.

I see butterflies the size of my face, all sorts of birds, and little black monkeys with white streaks down their backs. They were much too fast and agitated to get a picture of however. The ants rule the jungle as far as I´m concerned. They are omnipresent, inescapable, and can permeate any container. Truly frustration creatures.

At the end of the day I found a mosquito infested brown pool to pull some water from for the night. I hope my Steripen works like its supposed to! I set camp up fairly close to the road as the first raindrops start to fall from a thunderstorm closing in. Then I start to hear the explosive huffs ahead of me.

At first I think it might be howler monkeys that sound like lions at dawn and dusk. I am hoping it is just monkeys. I have my umbrella out with my SAT phone in one hand and a sandwich of moldy bread in the other. I´m standing in the road trying to get a clear signal for the phone and ahead of me about 50m is a figure.

At first it looks like a calf with its back higher than my waist. But, this is the middle of the jungle and of course there´s no livestock here. Then my heart sinks. It´s a puma looking directly at me grunting deep repetitive barks.

Here is a sound clip very similar to what I heard:

Click to play: Jaguar Roar

This is different from the more hiss like cougar sound:

Click to play: Cougar

I freeze in the road and just stare at it, he stares at me, then turns broad side and walks into the jungle, the same side my tent is set up on. My thought process was:

  • I need to move now
  • I can´t go past him, need to go backwards
  • I have less than 30 min until dark
  • Do I have the time/strength to get out of his territory
  • I´m not going to sleep tonight
  • My machete isn´t going to protect me
  • What are the chances of this actually happening?

By the time I pack up the hammock, throw my sandwich on the ground, and collect my things by the roadside (all the while looking around me in the bush for the cat) I here a glorious sound! A truck is revving its engine up the hill.

I run in front of the truck waving and sputter out in broken Portuguese, “Onça, Onça! Can´t sleep here tonight. Rode my bike, can´t camp. Can I come with you?”

There are three men in the cab of the fuel tanker truck and they quickly get excited as well. The rain has begun and the road will quickly become impassable, leaving us all stuck right there. I throw my bike and myself on top of the truck and we blast off down the road. The rain is getting heavier and heavier, the lighting is flashing blue in the sky, and the truck is sliding all over the road!

After a few minutes of clutching the vent at the top of the fuel container (there is very little securing me atop the tanker truck) I start to think I jumped from the pot and into the fire. One slide into the ditch on the side of the road and I am going to have a fuel truck on top of me. I have to admit though, it was a thrilling ride.

We went a few miles up the road. The driver was very skilled in the mud. On the uphills I was certain we were finally stuck, just sliding side to side and making no forward progress, but he managed it. On the downhills it was like being on an icy slope. The truck would just slide sideways and I could see steep drop off on either side. The men would get out and jam with wheels with logs and metal bars to keep it on the road.

By dark we reached a thatched hut by a wood plank bridge and river. There are 3 other trucks there and two light bulbs run off a gas powered generator. We walk in to the structure enclosed by netting to keep the bugs out and the truckers have a good laugh about my situation.

Evidently this is a work camp for the widening of the TransAm through the reserve. There ends up being almost 15 people in this long hut after a few hours and we all sit at a table and eat rice and whole piranhas boiled in river water. They´re very good but have many little bones.

Everyone sets up their hammock and I get about 7 minutes of sleep that night amongst the loudest snoring and hacking I have heard in my life I think. The rain keeps up all night and I worry about the road conditions the next day.

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A Little Help From Some Poachers

By on October 16, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 14 Comments

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When morning came to the work camp in the Parque Nacional Da Amazonia I walked to the road with my bike. I pedalled less than 100m and had to carry it back on my shoulder and throw it in the river to clean off the mud. I´d have to hitch a ride out of the mire with the boss man and his employee, who was literally riding shotgun.

I threw my bike and baggage in the back of his highpowered pickup truck and got in the back seat. The boss was a short balding man who gave some final orders to the guys at the work camp about what needed to be done in the area. Then he placed a handful of shotgun shells on the dash and another man climbed in the passenger seat.

The men had been very nice to me since I arrived the night before and I had no real reason to believe I was in any danger. I thought that maybe they were used as some sort of blasting caps for the construction process.

We hammered down the road thrashing through the mud and fishtailing up hills. People here like to drive as fast as possible. We entered a bulldozed clearing and the man riding shotgun yelled and we skidded to a hult. Everyone jumped out of the truck, so did I, and a shotgun was pulled from behind my seat.

The boss handed the gun to his employee who ran off in a crouch. He crept around a tree and fired. Less than ten feet away I saw clumps of dirt being kicked up. He walked over and dragged the small horned deer, the only type of deer that lives in the Amazon, toward the road. It was still alive and kicking on the ground. He handed me the gun as the boss and himself clubbed it over the head with a log. The log was rotten however and just broke apart all over the place.

They lifted it by the legs and brough it to the truck were a few more whacks over the head finally put the deer down. They shoved it under my bike, getting blood all over my cranks and frame, and covered it with a tarp, using my bike to secure it down. I am thinking, “Great, I’m in a jungle reserve holding a shotgun with illegal bushmeat in front of me. I am going to be on the next episode of Locked Up Abroad.”

Image of the fairly rare Amazonian Red Deer

Image of the fairly rare Amazonian Red Deer

Later I was able to snap the image with the deer´s head shown beneath my bike wheel and frame. I don´t think they would have appreciated me taking pictures of their illegal activity.

We continued down the road and in less than 10 minutes an adolescent (~80-100lbs) spotted Onça ran across the road! It is rare to see one big cat in the Amazon, I saw two in 12 hours! Sure enough we accelerate towards it with the shotgun out the window, but luckily the cat disappeared into the jungle. These guys were going to shoot anything they saw!

Further down again there were two pheasant type birds with long tails on the side of the road. This time we just pulled up next to them and from his seat Mr. Shotgun aimed out the window less than 8ft away and bagged one of them. The second bird didn´t even move so he took aim and clipped the wing. This bird hobbled into the brush.

The boss told me to pick up bird number one and hide it under the floor mat at my feet. Mr. Shotgun retrieved the other injured bird and rubbed its belly so it would squawk. He was trying to attact a third bird in the trees on the far side of the road. He snapped the next and put this bird under my feet with the first.

Off we went through more mud. I wanted to start riding my bike and leave these gentlemen to their business. We assisted a crashed truck bogged in the mud. These poor guys had been up all night trying to free themselves until we came along. Within 30 minutes we had them out.

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I have noticed that motorists on the TransAm are very willing to assist one another and other fellow travelers. I have stopped truckers going the other way to ask for water and they have been very kind. The terrain is harsh enough where I am sure anyone who frequents this road has needed the help of others before.

Eventually we reached a fazenda where the Boss gassed up his truck. I took the opportunity to untangle my bike from the deer carcass and get riding. The road was fairly dry at this point and I was ready to be on my own again.

I spent a day struggling with morale crushing hills and a serious bonk from lack of food while on the bike. Even after my rest days in Itaituba I hit the wall harder than ever before. I have a problem with eating while riding, which is essential for such long arduous rides, and 12 hours of riding just doesn´t make any sense to attempt day in day out.

I would need more rest in Jacareacanga and have to make a better effort to stay fed while on the bike. It was one of my lowest days of the trip so far.

Man Holds Razor to My Neck in Jacareacanga

By on October 17, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 10 Comments

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Don´t worry, just having fun with this title. I have taken time in Jacareacanga on the Tapajos river to slow down a little bit, nurse a low grade fever I´ve developed, and get my hair trimmed with a straight razor for about 1.50$ US.

Jacareacanga (Jacare´) is a fairly small town with a large percentage native indian population. It has a history for being a rough and tumble town, but I haven´t seen any evidence of it. My next stretch is nearly 800km to Humaita´on the Madeiros river with a small town of Apui along the way. I am using Jacare´to recover from some pretty significant exhaustion that has crept up on me. It has also been raining more than I have seen on the trip so far. Today it has been pouring for hours already which makes cycling an impossibility.

The indian population here is supported by the Brazilian foundation FUNASA which attends to their health needs. From what I have observed so far the native indians operate in the same space as everyone else in Jacare´but completely seperate from the non-indian population.

I see them walk in groups of 10-30, many woman with at least 1 or 2 new borns and toddlers, to and from the river and stores. Some of their huts are mixed in with the rest of the populations but without electricity, even in the middle of town. They are definately extrememly improverished and spend much of the day finding a shady spot to sit. In the morning I usually see a large group on a long bench in front of the food store. In the afternoon they move to a restaruant front.

In the evenings it is common for people to go to the village plaza where the food and icecream carts are stationed. People play soccer, a form of handball I´ve seen on my trip, and volleyball. However, the indian population have their own set of food stands and vendors they frequent. I see very little socializing between indians and non-indians.

There´s much I don´t know about the social structure of the indians and non-indian Brazilians. It appears as though the cultures are very different however.

A native indian family load their canoe for a fishing trip.

A native indian family load their canoe for a fishing trip.

The Tapajos river region is a popular gold and silver mining area. Next to where I am staying is a shop with a set of scales to turn in your gold dust. Across the street is a store for Garimpos, or miners in search of gold, silver, or any valuable stones or minerals. Often their operations are considered illegal. Also, mercury is commonly used for gold extraction which has lead to high levels of mercury in the fish population and subsequently in the humans that eat those fish. In Jacareacanga this has been a considerable problem amongst the indian population that depend on the river as a source of food.

I saw this painting on a wall in Itaituba which has an indian population as well. It shows an indian in front of a burned jungle. It reads, “Tears and ash.”

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At any rate, I enjoyed an afternoon of swimming in this river. The water was in the mid to upper 80 degree range and free of trash pollution. These little “minnow” looking fish swarmed me and wouldn´t leave me alone no matter how much I thrashed around. They didn´t do anything to me, but I kept imagining they were the Candiru parasitic catfish that imbed themselves in your orfices and need to be surgically removed. Ughh! I watch too much animal planet.

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Above is a brick making operation just on the edge of Jacare´. The mud around here is horrifyingly heavy and sticky so it´s no wonder that it´s used for this purpose. The water is pumped from the river into a truck, the soil is dug by men with shovels, and the mixture is shaped into bricks by hand and dried in the sun. I am unsure if a hardening agent is introduced to the mix as well.

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(*Side Note*: I want to thank everyone for following the posts and making comments. I didn´t realize until today that I missed over half of the comments that weren´t forwarded to my email for some reason. They are very motivating.

Also nice to see that people are reading this! It takes alot of time with the slow connections to make a post, almost 3 hours per post usually between the power going out, computer crashes, and slow picture uploads. It´s very difficult when the power goes out and you lose all your work!

It will most likely be over a week before I can update again, the next stretch is quite remote.

Ate´Logo!)

Cowboy Hat Lost in the Jungle Comes Into Town on Familiar Head

By on October 17, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 8 Comments

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While tinkering with a broken pedal on my bike I see a familiar face come down the street…and atop his head is the very hat I lost in the jungle 4 days ago!

I started laughing when I saw Mr. Shotgun, the poacher, wearing my cowboy hat. He was with the Boss of course and we shook hands and he plopped it back on my head. They both gave me the thumbs up and that was that.

It had fallen off the fuel truck during the escape from the Puma. They must have found it while doing work in the area.

Ha ha, I am back in cowboy hat business!

A Big Thanks to Resu the Pig Farmer

By on October 22, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 14 Comments

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I´ve made 160 miles since leaving Jacare´and had a very interesting stop over midway. In this section of the TransAm it is very sparcely populated and a smiling face is a welcome sight, especially after an afternoon bogged in torrential rains.

In the past week I have crossed my thousand mile mark, changed time zones, and crossed from the state of Para´to the state of Amazônas. The state of Para´ is roughly the size of France, Germany, and Italy put together, as stated by my German predecessor who cycled this route 10 years ago.

Since leaving Itaituba´ I´ve encountered rain everyday. The TransAm never ceases to throw another road block at me. I once read that the jungle either accepts you or rejects you. I can undoubtedly say that the jungle is trying to reject me, but I´m not going to crack just yet.

Towards the end of my slog a few days ago I was ambling along trying to find a campsite. I was covered in the cement like mud, my chain kept binding on itself, and a hamstring injury I had developed that day was pulling pretty badly. I later realized my ACE bandage had also caused some very deep chaffing…quite nasty.

I stopped by a small river to clean up before heading into the jungle for the night when I looked to my left and saw that I wasn´t alone. In a small shack there was a man sitting at his table, leaning out his “window” smiling. I set my bike down in the road (no one was going to be coming by) and walked over.

He came to the gate, which was his door, and we both kind of chuckled. He immediately invited me in for coffee and some farinha biscuits he made. I briefly told him my story and then we sat and just watched the pigs run around.

Eventually it started to rain again and he told me to bring my bike in from the road. I asked if it was ok if I camped in the yard and he said of course,  I could set my hammock up in the front kitchen area, where the chickens and rooster fed, which seemed a million times better than the ant infested jungle!

Facts about Resu:

  • Not much for conversation
  • 35 years old
  • Pig farmer
  • Owns 40 pigs, a few chickens, and a rooster
  • Works the farm alone
  • Land is owned by a fazenda operator
  • Has 5 brothers and one sister
  • Grew up in the state of Rondonia, only been there, his farm, and point inbetween
  • Doesn´t drink (something about getting hit in the face once)
  • Wants to find a wife in 2 years when he´s done farming
  • Smiles alot

Like I said, Resu is fairly quiet. The night went by with me thinking for 20 minutes of enough words to compose a coherent question and asking it, even if I knew the answer already. We listened to his tiny shortwave radio to the news out of the capitol, Brasilia, two time zones east. He had no electricity so the light was two candles set up on either side of the shack.

For dinner he reheated some rice, beans, and beef scraps that had probably been reheated many nights in a row. The stove was a block of cement with a ditch in the middle atop a wooden bench. Like most bachelors the cleaning process was a quick rinse and wipe down before using the plates and utensils. Worked for me. To be honest it all tasted very good.

Next the bathroom was calling. Resu literally didn´t have a pot to piss in, as the saying goes. It´s very humbling to meet someone so kind and giving that has so little. I felt like a jackass with my fancy gear sitting in the corner. Anyway, any hole behind the shack functioned as the bathroom, and the river was the shower of course.

I often reflect on what kind of runoff I have bathed in over the weeks… I try not to think too hard though.

Resu had a rifle hanging on the wall and I asked what he hunted. The jungle was back about 500 meters on either side of the road and he hunted there for wild boar, pacas, and viadu (the little red Amazonian deer), amongst other small game.

Eventually it was a suitable bedtime (8pm) which was comforting because I had exhausted my Portuguese vocabulary. The idea of roosters calling at dawn is a complete misconception by the way. Resu´s rooster likes to start his day at 3:30am. That´s a good two hours before first light! No one can sleep in on a farm… or sleep much at all.

In the morning Resu made more coffee and fried some more farinha biscuits. I idled longer than usual as I figured he was making the breakfast for the special guest, but I was anxious to get a move on.

When I did say thank you and start to pack up he asked if I wanted to stay longer, have more coffee, biscuits, etc. I felt bad, this guy must very rarely see anybody.

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The cycling was more of the same… heat, rough road, hills, mud, dust. Suffering overall. Sometimes I wonder if it was wise to tackle so many firsts at once: first cycling tour, first time to Brazil, first time trekking in the jungle, first time traveling alone, first time away from home for so long. It´s all a learning process though and I don´t mind learning more than one thing at a time.

Across the River Pineapple (Abacaxis) to Eldorado

By on October 22, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 17 Comments

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I am now in Apui´ with an injured hamstring. I predict it will take more time than I have to heal so I will head out and try to take it easy on the bike for the next leg of the journey. I have trimmed some of my gear down by selling and giving away parts I don´t need. It´s not easy to be a salesman in a foreign language!

After leaving Resu back at his lonely farm the inside tendon behind my right knee was red and visibly swollen. The chaffing from the ACE was an even worse problem, but I could still turn the pedals over so on I went.

When I reached the Rio Abacaxis I waded into the water to wait for the dugout canoe to ferry me over. Larger vehicles used a barge anchored there, however I didn´t see anything to move the barge?

 The ferry men were under a tree on the far side of the river downing beers. Nice work if you can get it.

The day proceeded with plumb sized loose rock jarring the bike every inch of the way. This was the case for the past 12-15 hours of cycling. Towards the end of the day I met my old friend the waffle packed dirt surface of construction.

I set up camp by a fazenda, using one of the fence posts to anchor my hammock. The bugs aren´t as bad by the fazendas as it´s drier and I had a decent night out. I even had a little bit of whiskey I´d been carrying for about 400 miles and I watched huge flashes of lightening in every direction around me, yet there were stars overhead.

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The rain ended up blasting down on me in the middle of the night but the hammock held up fine… as did my duct tape repair job on the holes in my rain fly made by leaf cutting ants. Everyone should carry duct tape with them at all times.

The TransAm is being maintained and improved as you approach Apui´ from the east. On an uphill I stopped to talk to some working clearing growth from the banks of the road. They asked if I had seen and Onças on my trip and if I shot them.

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You can just make out the workers in the orange suits. They are up on ladders using machetes to chop the growth. When I stopped the bike they were shouting questions but I couldn´t tell who was asking, they were all buried in the brush. The road is as steep as it appears in this photo. It´s difficult to capture the magnitude of these hills. Hill is such a weak word too. They´re ranges, ridges, summits! (Thanks thesaurus.)

A few miles down the road more workers stopped me. Before saying anything a man came over, covered my bike computer, and asked how many kilometers to Belem. It was as if they were in the middle of an argument and I had the answer on my bike computer. I didn´t tell them I had biked from Belem.

They promptly pulled me to the side of the road and gave me watermelon, Guarana´ cola (common as coke here), and bread. I rarely am assumed to be American. It´s always Argentinian, Bolivian, Spanish, German, or French… roughly in that order.

Apui´ is an honest to god gold rush town. “The city shot to fame in December 2006 when a Brazilian math teacher by the name of Ivani Valentim da Silva posted descriptions of miners scooping up thousands of dollars in gold in the area. In just three months, between 3,000 and 10,000 people poured into the area, cutting down trees, diverting streams and digging wildcat mines. The city was nicknamed Eldorado do Juma after the mythical El Dorado.”

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In this picture you can see I´ve updated my outfit. Although the button up shirt looked very expedition like it was cumbersome in the sleeve area and caught the wind like a para-sail on the downhills when open. I am now sporting a synthetic soccer jersey I picked up in Jacare´.

I have also updated my handle bars. I had a decent pair of aluminum bars from back in the US but they were too low giving me neck and shoulder pains to beat the band. I now have a 10$ pair of high rise steel bars that are much more comfortable but will probably fold on the first ditch I hit.

I tried my salesman skills with some other gear I just don´t need. I was able to sell my lock and cable to a motorbike store for 15 Reals which pays for my room tonight. I tried selling my bar ends and old handle bars to three bike shops but they just weren´t interested. They´d never seen bar ends before and they all were stocked up on handle bars. I ended up giving the parts away to the last shop I visited. He in turn replaced the broken kickstand he sold me the day prior. That is my 4th kickstand.

I have whittled my gear down once again to what I consider the essentials. As the road progresses there are less and less essentials. Weight has become everything when I need to carry so much water. While testing my bars and some adjustments on my bike I rode a steep uphill with the bike unloaded. With the lack of extra weight I felt like I could hit the moon!

Bacana, Americano. Bacana.

By on October 27, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 59 Comments

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At this point in the trip when I tell people where I have come from I watch their eyes dart up and down from head to toe. While in a pharmacy before leaving Apui´ the woman came from behind the counter while I was explaining my trip and stared at my face from less than 10 inches away. Then she says, “Bacana, Americano. Bacana.”

It means, “Cool, American. Cool.” I saw her again later on that day and she yelled from the sidewalk, “Bacana, Americano.” I have to admit, I didn´t know what it meant until days later.

The leg from Apui´ to Humaita´ had been a bit of a mental obstacle since Jacareacanga. From the map and any research I could gather on the internet there would be very little spread over this roughly 250 mile span. If it decided to rain, I´d be up a creek. If it was too dry, I´d be toasted on the road. However, everyone kept saying that is gets flatter. Everyone always says it´s flatter ahead. Maybe I have my adjectives mixed up.

My new handle bars were treating my neck and shoulders well and I made Rio Aripuana by mid day. There was a small roadside bar there so I filled up my water and waited for the ferry to arrive. I had some company too. A 40 something year old caboclo, or person of mixed Indian and European decent who lives in the jungle.

He was nearly legless drunk and asked me about sleeping in the mata, or forest, and how long I´d been doing this. I told him this is my first time to Brazil, I´ve been here a month. He shook his head and said he´d been in the jungle 40 years. He asked what I knew about cobras, or snakes, and I said I´d never seen one in the mata.

I began to feel he thought I was an idiot. Most likely he was right. By the time I am ready to camp I´m usually so tired I just blunder around the brush like I was back home in New England. I stick my hands in places I can´t see and get up to use the bathroom at night with bare feet. I´ve been lucky so far I guess. I´ve only seen snakes crushed and dried up in the road.

After about an hour the ferry came and he insisted on walking my bike down to the boat for me. I held his tobacco and rolling paper (he used a sheet of notebook paper) and I was worried he´d try to ride the thing down the embankment. I soon noticed he was holding the bike up and much as the bike was holding him up.

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On the otherside of the river I was almost in heaven. Around the first bend it became true. After all the weeks and gruelling miles I saw something I thought would never come. FLAT ROAD! As far as the eye could see. Such a bountiful sacred expanse of flatness all in one spot, right in front of me.

It was 106F degrees that afternoon but the road was smooth hard packed mud and I was smiling the rest of the day. After a few hours I noticed the back end of my bike seemed loose and I saw I had a flat. Coincidentally a road workers camp was in sight so I rolled over and said hi.

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This camp was smaller than the previous one I had slept in and was completely overrun by flies. There were 6 men there and one with a blue jacket was squatting on the ground. He must have had thousands of flies camped on his back and armpit region. They swarmed everything. Little flies, big flies, long flies, bee looking flies, wasp looking flies… a complete nightmare.

After some coffee and alot of fly swatting we used the truck pump to fill my back tire. I said “See ya later” and pedaled as fast as I could away from that place. I got less than 2 miles before the tire was flat again so I pulled into their previous camp (they went from bridge to bridge making repairs) and fixed the bike.

My fears of no water along the route had abated and I shared this river side camp with only a few flies 2 stray dogs. I have no idea where these dogs came from. There were no houses for over 30 miles in either direction. Maybe they just followed the workers and lived off their scraps?

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To end the day this 77 mile day I cracked what might be some of the foulest booze I have ever tasted. I think it was called Corote and it was a type of cachaça, or sugarcane rum, and the first I´ve had since landing in Brazil (which is a sin). It came in a small 300mL plastic soda type bottle and cost 2 Reals. I guess you get what you pay for.

Mind you, it had been sitting in my panniers all day and was probably over 100F. I took a swig and it felt like hot kerosene. Next came the closed-throat, salivating, I´m-gonna-vomit response but I fought that back. The next swig I was prepared for. I earned this god awful booze dammit!

Swimming with the Jiahoy Tapyýnha Rapepukua Rekwiawa e Tenharim Indians

By on October 28, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 8 Comments

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Ten bucks to anyone who can pronounce that. I left the riverside campsite and dogs behind for another day heading towards Humaita´. With such flatness on the road the previous afternoon I had ideas of another 100 mile day and was hammering the pedals before 6am. This wasn´t one of my wisest decisions. Also, I still don´t quite understand the Indians of northern Brazil.

Like Robert Frost says, “Nothing gold can stay” and with that my beautiful flat road disappeared and I was back into the hills. This time however, instead of the roller coaster ups and downs, I had long drawn out 1-2 mile gradual inclines. When you ask a motorist if the road is flat and they say yes, take it with a grain of salt. Those long gradual inclines grind away at your morale.

I reached a town called KM 180 or Vila Santo Antonio do Matupi,  located 180 kilometers from Humaita´. I fill my water bottles at a gas station and try to answer the questions of a screaming kid in his early 20´s who’s clearly had a few too many beers for 11:30 am. He has no patience for my portuguese and I have no patience for his lack of volume control. I decided to push on for the day.

By 2pm I had made 70 miles but was feeling the wear and tear. I plan to stop every ten miles to rest and eat in the shade. Ten miles sounds pretty wimpy but it was an hour and a half worth of effort on this day.

After nearly 1400 miles of road I actually had to pay a toll! The Jiahoy Tapyýnha Rapepukua Rekwiawa Indian reservation charged 7 Reals per vehicle for use of the road on their land. Fair enough I thought as I paid the lady and proceed through the gate. I didn´t have any indication on my map there would be a reservation here.

I rarely rely on my map at this point since it has failed me so many times thus far. More or less it is good for visualizing the sequence of rivers and towns to some small degree. The distances printed are completely off, sometimes by as much as 70 miles. I´m not sure who the cartographers are but the inaccuracy of the map has been astounding.

I use distances emailed to me by my father to plan my rides and I also ask locals how far away certain points are. It’s wise to ask a good cross section of the population. A tough guy will say the road is easy, well maintained, and that distances are shorter. A younger person might never have left their town and give you their best guess. The most reliable people to ask are the truckers and bus drivers since they know the routes by heart. However, a smooth road for a truck and for a bike are two very different things.

So back to the reservation. For 20 miles there is pure untouched jungle on either side of the road. Rio Marmelos is ahead of me and I have been fantasizing all day that it will be a perfect place to stay with either a nice campsite or even a small hotel or dormatorio. I could have a cold coke or at least some cold water, bath in the river, and be within a day’s ride to Humaita´. I push on hoping this will be the case.

When I do reach Rio Marmelos it´s almost dusk and I have ridden 90 miles in about 9 hours of actual pedaling. I am still inside the Indian reservation and there are grass and bamboo huts in bunches on either side of the river. I am committed to staying by this river!

The exit for the reservation is just on the far side of the river. I pedal over and ask the attendant if there is a place to stay in the area. She is in her late teens or early twenties and is surrounded by adolescents. They mumble to each other and just laugh. I try to tell her what I am doing and that I would just like a place to hang my hammock for the night. More laughing and no answer.

I pedal back towards the river and ask an older man the same question. He tells me he doesn´t know if there is a place to stay, but there´s a hotel (restuarant/bar) about 2 hours back from where I came.

I ride to the edge of the river and wade into the water. There are Indian boys, girls, babies, men, and women floating in the water and washing clothes. I take some time to scrub the dust from my legs, scalp, ears, eye sockets, neck, and rinse the festering abrasion on the back of my leg.

I strike up a conversation with one of the male Indians about my trip. We seem to be understanding each other well. I tell him where I´ve been, that I live in Boston, and I´m going to Peru etc. Then I ask if there is a place to stay for the night in this community. He tells me to ask the person at the gate. I told him that she didn´t know.

He asks some people around him but doesn´t reply to me. After a few minutes I tell him I´ve pedaled 9 hours and I´m very tired. Is there someplace I can sleep in this village? Again, he turns to the people around him and they kind of laugh with each other.

I have to admit, I had little patience at this point and after two laughing responses I am getting fed up. I asked one more time, realizing that they hold all the power as to whether I can stay or not. I make my best polite inquiry and again laughs all around.

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What the flip? That’s it. I stand up, leave the river, and get on my bike. I open the gate and let myself out of the reservation and pedal a few miles down the road out of sight of the village. I have 20 minutes to sun down (it sets quick this close to the equator). The road is still surrounded by pure jungle but I find a small clearing to set up camp where not too much hacking of foliage is required to get my hammock up. I am exhausted and want minimal effort.

I light a palm stump on fire and throw some dead leaves on it and have dinner boiling in less than 6-7 minutes. I am pretty pumped about this at least. From cold stump to hot dinner in less that 7 minutes. Unfortunately I am completely swarmed by bees. None of them sting me but they are most definitely some sort of bee. My sweaty cycling clothes and food add to their excitement.

I’m in the hammock sweating for the night by 6 pm. I lay there listening to monkeys, bees, birds, and the loudness of the jungle at dusk and wonder about the response from the Indians. I don’t really get riled up at this point however, just wonder.

There are more things between heaven and earth… especially out here in the jungle, which no westernized person could ever understand.

The Price of Reaching Humaita´

By on October 29, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 10 Comments


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I packed up camp in the dark at 4:30 am and forced a few hundred calories of raisins, granola, cookies, and Tang down my throat for a kick start to the day. I figured Humaita´ is about 75 miles away, there’s no sense making it a two day ordeal, might as well start early!

I knew by the time the afternoon heat set in my pace would have to decrease so every mile I could get out of the way early the better. Considering the previous two days of cycling and the early start I felt pretty good. I had developed a new pain in my left knee to add to the strained tendon in my left hamstring area though. On a positive note, after a few hours my flat road was back again and I could maintain a steady pace without significant pressure on either injury. My morale was high which is very important to making forward progress.

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When I reached Rio Abiaci I added to my breakfast with some fried fish and coke. I had 54 miles to go according to a distance marker planted on the side of the road and my own calculations. I took my time, worked on my tan lines, and stopped for some photo ops.

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Most critters of the Amazon are too quick and skittish to take a decent photo of but this guy stood very still for me. He was probably waiting for the right time to spray venom into my eyes or something.

By the afternoon I was really starting to drag. I began my ritual of an hour of cycling followed by 15-30 minutes lying in the dirt on the side of the road. To make matters worse I hit road construction and my old friend the waffle maker! With only 10 miles left to go I was jarred to the core by the road surface and started walking the bike. I was making 3 mph and Humaita´ seemed a lifetime away.

Then I was put in my place by a 7 year old on a single geared bike. He was riding in flip flops with his little sister on the rear cargo rack just chuggin’ along in front of the waffle machine! I gave him a thumbs up, got back on my saddle, and turned those damn pedals over.

dscn0544By the time I reached 75 miles for the day all I saw in front of me was straight road to the horizon. Shit. Where is Rio Madeira, where is the ferry, where is Humaita´! Like I said before, morale is a very important component to forward progression, and I was out of morale. I made little more than a mile at a time before pulling over, taking off my shirt, and lying in some shade in the dirt. At some point I saw a bend in the road and a sign signally the ferry crossing. It was little more than 300 meters ahead of my but I was forced to the side of the road once again. The heat was just dominating me.

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Humaita´ marks a turning point in the trip for me. From here to Rio Branco, which lies close to the Bolivian and Peruvian borders, it’s a paved stretch that should be easier than where I have come from. From Rio Branco I will make a decision as to how I will proceed out of Brazil and westward.

As I crossed on the ferry I saw fish jumping everywhere and they were being chased by pods of freshwater dolphins that surfaced every few minutes. The water was brown and murkey with absolutley no one bathing but I figured the fishing had to be good here. I’d try my luck later on.

Here’s the price of reaching Humaita´ and 1500 miles of the TransAm thus far:

  • 20 lbs body mass
  • 2 flat tires (only two)
  • 4 kickstands
  • 7 crashes (all at low speed)
  • 2 muscle strains
  • 2 fevers
  • 300-400 liters of water/soda/Tang
  • 2 very ripe saddle soars
  • myriad of scrapes, cuts, bruises
  • roughly 180 hours of pedaling
  • 2 broken racks
  • 1 bout food poisoning (only one, a miracle)
  • 2 bike chains
  • 4 continuously numb fingers
  • 4 continuously numb toes
  • countless hours of doubt

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The below image is from Diario de Amazonia and depicts the Jiahui Indians performing a ceremonial reenactment of first contact with the white man when the TransAm was cut through the jungle by roaring construction vehicles of the Brazilian military.

    Fishing on the Rio Madeira and My Afternoon with a Garimpeiro

    By on October 29, 2009 in Adventure in the Amazon // 9 Comments

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    Humaita´ is a rather pretty city on the Rio Madeira (which means wood). For the past few days I have been catching up on my X-Tudo and ice cream eating, tried my hand at fishing, and have met some colorful people along the way.

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    The Rio Madeira is very murkey and I’ve seen exactly zero people swimming. I haven´t even seen anyone step foot into the water yet. The banks are quite steep and the currents are fast. Eddies are visible everywhere and foliage and drift wood spin by every few minutes.

    While sitting on the edge I watch an oval shaped chunk of wood about the size of a hand pulled below the surface 4-5 times in one minute. The fish jump and attack all sorts of debris in the water and the dolphins stay close to the edge chasing the smaller fish. (Of course it’s nearly impossible to take a decent pic of them. All I turned out where some grey dots disappearing below the surface).

    My fishing rig was Brazilian style (learned from Mr. Shotgun) and consisted of:

    • 1 Plastic Dydyo Cola bottle (rod and reel)
    • 20-30 ft of 17 lb test  fishing line
    • 1 completely over-sized hook
    • chunk of garbage styrofome as a bobber
    • spam as bait

    The line gets tied to the cola bottle and you wrap it around and around as you pull in the line. This makes a pretty efficient handline. The hook was the smallest I could find in the stores but was way too big for anything I wanted to pull out of the water. I figured I’d use my machete if I pulled out a monster (wishful thinking). The bait was the cheapest meat product I could find.

    I noticed that not only was there no one bathing on the banks but there was also no one fishing. Maybe they didn’t want to snag the dolphins by accident. I was slightly worried about this actually but figured they were out just far enough and probably wouldn´t go for a chunk of spam. I’d feel like a real piece of work hooking a dolphin. I already looked like a gringo kook with my get up but I was at least gonna give the fishing a wack.

    As soon as I tossed my line in the water the bobber darted, dipped, and zig zagged before surfacing and sitting still. I realed her in and no bait. A few more times and the results were the same. I found a piece of rag to tie the meat in so the small fish would nibble it away before something of substance took a bite. But still, the results were the same and the rag was shredded.

    Pirahna are a tricky species when fishing. My hook was too big for these smaller fish close to the banks and my bait didn´t last 15 seconds before being devoured! An older man pulled up in his long motorized Amazon style canoe and told me the fishing was very bad here. I could see why.

    Tip about my lousy fishing spot from the man in the hat.

    Tip about my lousy fishing spot from the man in the hat.

    I was getting cooked in the afternoon sun and called it a day. I am holding on to my fishing rig for future use.

    In the center of town is a travel terminal in a fairly nice colonial looking building with stucco walls, columns, and arches. I went there the other afternoon to watch a thunderstorm roll in and mix with the crowd. While standing on some stairs I noticed a visibly drunk man headed my way wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and boots. He had black skin and green eyes and a duffle bag over his shoulder.

    It was siesta time and everything was more or less closed for the next few hours. He asked me about Humaita´and I told him I was just passing through as well. Once he found out my Portuguese was basic he was very careful to speak simply, slowly, and clearly which I greatly appreciated.

    He was a garimpeiro, or gold/silver/gem miner and was on is way to a mine 60 km north of Apui´, the last town I was in before Humatia, called Eldorado do Juma. His name was a mix of J´s, Q´s, and I´s that I never really understood. He told me about how he went to different areas of the Mato Grosso, Amazonia, and Rondonia regions to mine in remote locations. He ordered a quick shot of cachaça from the terminal bar and continued.

    From his bag he pulled out some smelly cream he put in his hair. Of course he made me smell it. Then he pulled out a bottle of peppers he put on his fish to eat and made me smell that. Then he pulled out a little prescription looking bottle for when he eats something bad and gets sick. He described how he gets dengue from time to time and how much his head will hurt.

    Then he pulled out another little plastic bottle. It was transparent with no markings and had a red substance inside that reminded me of brake fluid. He told me it was for snake bites. If he got bit by a snake he would drink this liquid and go to sleep forever.

    Woah…I guess that´s one way to deal with that situation!

    Finally he pulls out two stones that he puts in his mouth to clean off the dust. They are fairly clear and colorless. He places them in my hands and says, “Topaz. For you. Keep them.”

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    The bigger stone is about equal in size to the end of my thumb. The smaller one has a cool cleavage to it that is somewhat elongated with 6 sides or so. Anyway, I didn´t know what to make of the offer. They are pretty cool indeed.

    I asked him if he liked Brazil and he crossed his heart and said he loved it. His eyes even welled up with tears. I think to some degree the booze was having its effect. Again, I was somewhat at a loss in this situation and changed the subject.

    We talked for over and hour as he continued to drink. He proceeded to show me his scars. I had noticed a long streak on his forearm earlier. He tells me they are from none other than gun fights! Oh geez. There were three or four bullet scars from shoot outs including a big welt of a scar on his back. I asked if these fights were in the jungle with other garimpos. He had told me earlier he hated Bolivians. Nope, they were from when he lived in the city. He told me about how he used to rob people…but never Americans! He liked Americans.

    Now I was wondering what else he had in that duffle bag of his. I didn´t like where any of this was going, especially when he asked me which hotel I was in. Perhaps he wasn´t fully aware of the impression he was now giving but I wanted to make my departure before things went south… and he was getting drunker.

    I thought of Hunter S. Thompson´s quote, “You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug,” especially when they  just told you they used to rob people at gunpoint for a living.

    I wished him luck, thanked him for the conversation, and headed in the opposite direction as my hotel which was in sight from where we were sitting. I felt guilty for having nothing to give him in return for the stones (although he was eyeing my onyx and silver necklace given to me by my girlfriend Sara before I left for this trip).

    Humaita´ has been a nice respite from the road. I almost feel nostalgic at leaving the dirt behind for now but I’m sure I’m being overly optimistic about the road head.

    We shall see….

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    (Since writing this I have now seen a bunch of the famous pink river dolphins surfacing in the Rio Madeira!)