Two days after leaving Manaus, and heading back towards the ocean, we arrived in Santarem at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajos Rivers. We are moving with the current, so the trip going out is zippier. The Tapaiu Indians have been living here for thousands of years, and in 1661 a Jesuit mission was established. The town got it’s name in 1758. The population is about 300,000.
Later history was marked by the rubber boom and bust. Henry Ford’s two failed plantations were near here (Fordlandia and Belterra), and there was a series of gold rushes that started in the 1950’s. Today, the economy is based primarily on production of genetically modified soy and hardwood. There has been an increase in gold and bauxite mining, but the severe environmental impact makes them extremely controversial.
Our berth was a dilapidated pier next to the rusted hunks of old cranes. Across from us, 3 ferries, already bulging with passengers, continued to cram on more bodies. Most were carrying balls of brightly colored fabric that revealed hammocks when unfurled and hooked to the ceiling. These travelers would live in them for the next 3 days as they cruised to Manaus. There was no room to take a deep breath. No chairs, and no food for sale.
There were no air conditioned spaces, and at 10 AM the sun was already punishing. No protection from bugs. And only two toilets for hundreds of people, that discharge directly into the river.
It was a 30 minute walk to town in the suffocating heat, and as I stopped to take photos, a man greeted us in perfect english from the top deck of the “slightly nicer” ferry. He was standing in front of a “suite”, and when he leaned back to open the door, his family emerged from a closet sized windowless room. He introduced his kids as “Daughter #1” and “Daughter #2”, which seemed strangely impersonal. Then he introduced “The Wife”.
He quickly pointed out that they were from Manaus, and only in Santarem because it was necessary to visit family. Why did he need to justify their presence?
In town, a 20 foot sloped seawall offered protection against the recurring floods. Splintered wooden ladders descended the steep sides to the putrid, slime coated water below. A hand written sign with an arrow pointing towards the river advertised; “apartamentos para alugar” (apartments for rent). Where? There was nothing down there but anchored boats whose seaworthiness was suspect. Then we figured it out. The boats ARE the apartments. Bring your own hammock. We watched as residents slogged barefoot between the boats and the seawall laden with bags of groceries and ice. Barefoot… through the raw human waste that gets dumped overboard in buckets. The living conditions were an abomination from my perspective, but this is not my part of the world, so for me to pass judgement is small minded.
We continued along the seawall towards the fish market that was winding down for the day. A few sleepy eyed vendors, glanced our way, but quickly lost interest. An opportunistic Great White Heron gobbled snacks from a bail bucket. No one felt compelled to shoo it away.
On the way back to the pier, we peeked into the glassless windows of homes and noticed many people swinging in hammocks. Apparently, mattresses do not exist here, because it’s just too wet. They are breeding grounds for insects, burrowed into by vermin, and grow an impressive array of sickness promoting molds.
The night before arriving in Santarem, we were warned about buying “lacquered Piranhas” from souvenir stalls. They are considered a biohazard and would not be permitted back on board. They are coated so quickly after death that the parasites still living inside eat through the glaze in a desperate attempt to vacate the decaying corpse and find a new host.
I haven’t looked at the one we got in 2002 for years. Now I’m afraid to open the cabinet…
I hope you enjoyed our adventures on the Amazon River. Now we have 6 days at sea before arriving in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.