I discovered that it is possible to hitch a boat ride on the Amazon, just like a car ride in Germany! You put out a thumb and ... Well, not exactly, but it is similar. After a brief chat with a ship captain, I spent one whole day sailing with few passengers and a few thousand bananas, and the next day with an entire herd of cows and goats. I changed boats depending on their destination, and wondered each time at the resourcefulness of man and the power of nature.
How do you hitch a boat ride? I look for a local watering hole and, once there, the biggest bohemian among the sailors. Or, in harbours, I sneak a peek into the moored boats and glance at the sailors lying in hammocks, trying to locate among them the sailor whose hat is tipped the most. These people, used to all manner of trouble and brothers only with the river, the glass, and the knife, are often understanding of all wanderers.
'Is there a place for a Serb among your bananas, cows, and goats?' I asked politely. It was clear to them that I would not be asking if my pockets were lined with money. Some drove me away, some still asked for money, and some just waved me in, as if to say, 'Get in!' And so, my multiple-day trip down the amazing river started in this easy and spontaneous fashion.
Every evening, the most gifted painter in the universe strewed the colours of his easel, full of rich shades of yellow and red, over the skies above the Amazon. The colours came together, connecting souls, vast spaces, worlds, and eternities. Observing a miracle transforms one's being: I became what I saw, awestruck by what we all are – sky, colour, water.
Seeing the sun set over the Amazon makes life worth living. The enormous soul sailing through the jungle lives, breathes, and spills over the boundaries of the concept 'river'. I had flown above it on an airplane, and my impression was the same as now, as I sailed downstream on a ship: The Amazon is in fact an ocean! Over the vast expanse of the river Amazon, I thought I had shrunk and snuck into a contraption of sorts, made out of Legos and flown by someone's hand over the Danube, and that a single wave or a gust of wind might submerge it towards the piranhas.
I am told that the Amazon is over 50 kilometres wide at certain points, but that strikes me as too small! Its banks are not actually there, merged as they are with the jungle into the lungs and the heart, the soul and the distant past of planet Earth. The scientists, who say that everything here is a wonder and a mystery, are aiming to prove that four kilometres below the Amazon another underground river flows – Rio Hamza, which is 6,000 kilometres long and several times wider than the river we see. The riverbanks were often so far away that they resembled distant islands or mirages. They would meet the sky in the distance and appear unreal, fairy tale-like, and blurred, as if drawn by the hand of a merry, bohemian rascal of an artist – a fleeting outline, especially at sunset. All the ships you can imagine sail across the Amazon – from those carrying pirates, robbing and kidnapping passengers, to the luxury ones, lending themselves to attacks and kidnapping of the 'big fish', i.e. the visitors. The safest are usually the ordinary ships – used by the locals, they travel slowly, never disturbing the low hum and rhythm of the river. Robberies are frequent there, but kidnappings of passengers are not, because most people onboard are "drowned and out", with the poor taking away from the poor. It was one of such ships that I decided to board. I wanted to travel like the locals. I bought a sleeping bag and was assigned my two rods on one of the decks, which I used to stretch out my sleeping bag. No emperor, king, billionaire, or Casanova enjoys their days as much as I enjoyed sailing down the Amazon, gently rocking in my humble sleeping bag! I tipped my hat to protect myself against the sun, rocking and resting my eyes on the calm river far away on the horizon. Only the river flowed, all else had stopped! I was becoming one with the artery of life, the blood stream of existence – the almighty Amazon!
Embraced in their sleeping bags, couples in love were sleeping, looking at the river, or reading books. At a table or two, elderly men were playing chess or other games I could not identify. The deck was swarming with sleeping bags and people. We were lined up like sardines in a dense arrangement of countless sleeping bags. Arms and legs stuck out of the bags, as well as an occasional head or the better part of the body. People were mostly having a lie-down or sleeping in them, rocking gently to a secret, Amazonian rhythm. The Amazon was dazing and overwhelming us more and more, making us spend most of our days and nights in sleep or half-sleep. Here and there someone would spread out a bedsheet and then cuddle and snack on it; an occasional guitar and the melodious sound of a song would pierce the silence gently and calmly. The Amazon had appeased all souls, and you could not hear so much as a low murmur. Everyone lived and sailed on, courted one another and fought with one another, in silence.
But, you could not say that there was no excitement on the ship. Although terrible, the excitements were nonetheless calmer under the cloak of tranquillity and serenity of such an expanse. Even when an Amazonian storm burst out, and God decided to pour buckets of fresh water on our little boat, the river and the sky merged into an endless uniform ocean in the life-creating substance, and our little boat resembled a fish in search of meaning.
Insects that look like sparrows
At one point, as the sun was still shining, a bird landed beside me. It rolled down and hit the floor with a loud thud! I approached it cautiously to have a look, only then realizing that it was in fact a huge insect – a sort of an Amazonian bumble bee the size of a sparrow!
I tied my bags tight to the ship's metal pillars. 'You'll figure it out yourself,' said the well-intentioned locals who recommended that I do it. I was travelling light, and held tight to everything important to me even when I slept – with my wallet inside my pants, tied with a rope to my underwear or another garment.
It was only a couple of hours into the trip when children, no older than ten, started to hang around us. Looking cute, they smiled and played serenely. And then, all of a sudden, two boys grabbed my fellow passengers' bags, threw them overboard in a split-second, and then they themselves jumped into the river! I went over to the shocked victims standing at the railing, and watched in disbelief as the children were moving away from the ship with their spoils. The deck that we were on was very high, probably at the level of the second or third storey. Jumping into the water from such a height is not for the weak of heart. One passenger considered jumping after the children and his luggage, but a sailor stopped him, saying, 'The ship won't stop on your account, and if you end up in the river, you'll be left to your own devices, the creatures of the wild, and the parents and friends of those brats.' Slouching and crestfallen, all the victims could do is come to terms with their lot and comfort each other saying it could have been worse. This is one of the reasons why I only carried what I could give the thieves for free. My bag, tied to a pillar, did not contain much: some clothes, books, and brandy. I carried so few items mostly because of the sunsets – this was the only way for me to enjoy them uninterrupted, even as the thieves were rummaging through my bag.
All I need is two T-shirts and two pairs of long shorts – one that I wear and the other in the bag. When the clothes I wear gets dirty, I wash them manually in a sink, stream, river, or lake.
I have to say that the hygiene on this trip was not up to par. The longest period that I have gone without washing is 22 days, and if I manage to shower once a week on expeditions such as this one, I consider that a success. I took a bath on the ship only once, when it rained decently. I came out onto the upper deck with a soap in my hand, alongside other passengers, and made good use of the incredible downpour to wash off a bit of grime.
I always carry in my bag a few small glass flasks of Serbian brandy. Slivovitz has proven to be an exceptional resource, worth its weight in gold in the jungle: it makes a guide put in far more effort, a scowling captain give away his cabin, and a sleeping bag neighbour share his lunch with me. It successfully replaces the red tape hassle from an angry border official, who will turn not one, but both blind eyes to get a flaskful, if necessary.
The greatest challenge is keeping the brandy from the thieves. Serbian brandy works wonders and carries more weight than money. A few flasks that I brought with me and gave away to sailors secured respect and friendship, even a luxury or two.
Ship kitchens are well-known sources of various stomach bugs. They serve more types of bacteria than they have dishes on their menus. Brazilian stomachs are used to it, and I am proud to report here that my stomach has become pretty resistant after more than ten food poisonings around the world. Two Europeans, who were curious about a romantic trip down the biggest river in the world but did not have enough money for a luxury yacht, were now spending their romantic time in small metal toilets which retained some of the excrement, which the heat then turned into a sort of fragrance that would make a healthy person sick.
Every day we saw an occasional settlement or two on the riverbank. Sometimes it would be no more than a hut, and sometimes an array of multi-storey buildings, which looked as if they had been transported from Europe into the middle of the jungle in a sort of a feat of mischievous magic. And sometimes it would be whole cities, reachable only by the river. The ship would dock there sometimes, to relieve its gut of a few travellers or take on a few more. The cell phone signal let me know whenever we were approaching a city. There was no signal along the better part of the river; as we would start approaching a settlement, slowly a single bar appeared, then two, until a few hours later civilization emerged around a bend. I was always glad to see an antenna for all sorts of signals, including my cell phone signal. I would be able to calm my parents down and tell them that for some strange reason I had not been robbed yet, although the Amazonian insects were not letting any opportunity to get my Serbian blood go to waste.
Necklaces from Serbian bills
When I go on trips, I always have on me a couple dozen Serbian coins and 10-, 20-, and 50-dinar bills. I make use of the fact that other people find Serbia exotic and that they like getting a little something from our part of the world. Serbian money makes a nice souvenir and thieves do not find it interesting. It is much cheaper to give a ten-dinar bill to a chief or a sailor, delighting them with an unusual currency from distant lands, than treating them to a drink or offering a tip. So I have scattered Serbian dinars far and wide, and now they hang on walls of many taverns, hostels, and sleeping hovels, many cabins of the Amazon ships, or are even put in frames and used as decorations in the huts of various tribes. I am glad to see the daughters of distant tribes' chiefs making necklaces from Serbian bills and wearing them proudly, as the most beautiful ornaments and symbols of their own beauty.
Kurir/Viktor Lazić/Foto: Viktor Lazić