Sunday, August 25, 2013

Venezuelan border to Manaus, Brazil

When I was ready to leave Venezuela I got the taxi to the border. It's here I realised I spent a whole month in Venezuela. Not bad considering I had no real idea of what I would do before I got there. Anyway, immigration was interesting since there is no electronic passport scanning machine. The guy had a log book and wrote down my details then stamped me out. Old skool! Then I walked down to Brazil, which is pretty far actually (like 1 km) compared to all the other land borders I've crossed over here. 

Brazilians lining up for cheap Venezuelan fuel in no man's land. This line just went on and on. It's kinda the equivalent of Venezuelans lining up for toilet paper!

Then I got to the Brazilian immigration office, filled out the form, got out my UK passport (since Aussies need a visa and Poms don’t) and got stamped in. Apart from the relatively long walk through no man’s land, this was the quickest borders I’ve crossed. There was no line at either end. Note, if you're coming up from Brazil, both immigration offices are on your right (same side as the Banco do Brasil). Don't go to anything on your left (especially at the Venezuelan end) as this is where you're more likely to run into problems with dodgy police searching your stuff and stealing your money. Consider yourself warned.

After Brazilian immigration and outside the bank are a bunch of collectivos with “Pareraima” written on the side. You tell them you want to go to Boa Vista, pay your 25 reais, wait for the car to fill up, then off you go. Boa Vista is about two hours away and 30 minutes ahead of Venezuela since you are now back on normal time not Chavez time. I really had no idea how long the whole border crossing experience would take. I left Santa Elena around 10am, which ended up being way too early cos we got to Boa Vista around 1.30pm. I had booked a flight to Manaus in the evening. I could have got a night bus instead, but I kinda hate them and I didn't really want to take another one yet.

Since it was lunch time, the driver dropped me at a por kilo restaurant that he really liked. Hello! I’d forgotten about these places. They are everywhere in Brazil and you can get a good vegan feed as long as they have a decent salad bar. This one did so for about $7 I got lunch and a takeaway dinner. Then I tried to find out how to get to the airport since there was nothing to do here (at least where I was). I figured I could use the afternoon to catch up on tv on my laptop. The woman spoke Portuguese obviously so I had no idea what she was saying, although she understood my questions in Spanish about getting to the airport. Anyway some guy that was listening said he’d give me a lift. He was nice and didn’t rape and/ or kill me so that was good.

Like most places I've visited in South America, in Manaus I had another rubbish cabbie from the airport who had no idea where the hostel was despite me having the location loaded on Google Maps. He tried to take me to two other hostels first. He’d stop outside and point at the sign. I’d see it was the wrong hostel and go “no”. Then I’d show him the map again for the 50 millionth time, which even had the route mapped from the airport to hostel. I would have thought it doesn't get much clearer than that! I don’t understand how he didn’t know where he was going. Grr, cabbies. They are so shit!

The next day I walked around but it's not an overly touristy city. However, Brazil is so much more developed than the other South American countries I’ve visited this trip. City people (at least) look like they have inside rather than outside jobs, drive new cars, and have iPhones. I'd also forgotten that Brazil is more expensive than the other countries I've been in so my daily budget was challenged, especially since I kept being lured by the endless supply of cheap and pretty Havaianas and year round summer clothes. I also liked having my daily dose of a├žai again.

A lot of the buildings here were built during the rubber boom. Some of them are abandoned now, which seems a shame. Others have been restored and turned in hotels and things.

Manaus was nice to hang out in for a few days even though there isn't much to do. I liked the hostel and enjoyed having fast internet again after Venezuela. There is one vegetarian restaurant here. I had lunch here twice and it was quite nice. You need to go early rather than late though cos by 1pm things start to run out.

Manaus is popular place for organising Amazon tours, although it's more expensive than the ones offered in Ecuador and I'll assume, Peru. I didn't really feel the need to spend several days in the jungle since I've already been in the Amazon elsewhere. However, I did want to see the meeting of the rivers and swim with dolphins. Sadly you can't do just these two things. All the tour companies have bundled up a bunch of activities and you pay for and do the lot. I booked one of these all inclusive tours, which was quite expensive. They could easily halve the price and just offer a half day tour with the two things I wanted.

The boat leaves from the harbour in the morning and before we get started it gets bailed up by the coast guard (or is it river guard?) for like half an hour. We sit there doing nothing and going no where while the boat guy is showing them paperwork and stuff. This is where I realised the number one advantage of being in a country and not speaking the language. There were two American kids on the tour who kept saying “Mom, what are we doing?”, “Mom, why aren’t we going?”, “Mom, I want a drink”, etc. etc. Urgh, I’d forgotten how whiny and annoying children are. I just want to smack their heads together and tell them to shut the fuck up!

I like this bridge.

Anyway, we finally get going and see the meeting of the waters (Rio Negro and the Amazon), which is fairly interesting to see (once) since the Rio Negro is much darker than the Amazon. Apparently they are different temperatures but I stuck my hand in both and they felt the same to me.

The next stop was to what I thought was going to be a nature reserve or park thing with animals. Um, no. It was a family’s house on the river where they’d captured wild animals and were pimping them out to tourists. They had a sloth, boa constrictor, caiman and anaconda. I felt very sorry for the animals and ethically conflicted about holding them. And yes, I get the hypocrisy of getting a photo taken and thereby somewhat supporting this, but the guy literally put the caiman in my hands. I especially feel sorry for sloths that become domesticated. I heard that people go into the jungle and kill the families and take the babies to tame them. I do love sloths though. They are such beautiful, smiley creatures.

Next stop was lunch in a por kilo restaurant on the river. It was actually very good. I liked that this buffet had a good selection of fruit as well. Normally they just have salads. Behind the restaurant was a boardwalk out to some giant lily pads. They were cool. They look like big pizza trays!

Then we went through a flooded forest to see some of the biggest trees in the Amazon jungle. 

You can see how high the water gets in the wet season (it's the start of the dry season). Since it's raining less now the water levels are declining, but they still have a about two months to go before they’ll reach their lowest levels.

Of course this is South America so you can't go anywhere (including the jungle) without someone trying to sell you crap!

Then we found the dolphins. The locals intervene by enticing them with fish so they will swim up to the tourists. They also forced us to wear life jackets if we wanted to go in the water. 

I was less conflicted about swimming with the dolphins since they are still in their natural habitat. And it was pretty awesome I have to say, even if they are being bribed with food they didn't have to catch themselves. They brush up against you and swim around you and you can pat them. Afterwards someone told me they like to suck on toes and if they do this you have to wait until they are finished or their razor sharp teeth will cut your foot. They didn't do this to any of us. Annoyingly, the ones today were mostly grey in colour. Apparently they can vary between really pink to grey. Even though I saw pink dolphins in los Llanos, they were hard to see properly because the water was so dark. I would have liked these ones to have been more pink to see them a bit better. Also, river dolphins are really fat compared to their sea cousins. Funny!

After the dolphins I was ready to head back to Manaus but no, we had one more stop to make. 

Apparently some bright spark at the Brazilian Tourism Office decided that Indigenous tribes should dress up and dance for the tourists. "They’ll love it!". Um, it was kind of lame, and it felt as exploitative as the trapped animals earlier. Plus if you’re unlucky they pull you into the dance. One of these guys grabbed my hand so tight (probably cos he knew I didn't want to participate by the bemused expression on my face) that he bruised it. 

There were also a lot of boobs on display including girls who looked about 14. I felt really sorry for them in particular, since teenage girls are always self conscious of their bodies. And yes, I know they are from a different culture where not wearing a top was probably once socially acceptable in the jungle. However, now they live 30 minutes from the city of Manaus, and have all the mod cons that everyone else has so I don’t buy that argument. Now it just feels like child pornography and exploitation.

After that we headed back. I'm very conflicted about this tour. The bits I wanted to see (rivers meeting and dolphins) were good but but most of the other activities felt very wrong. Unfortunately all the tours are the same so you can’t pick and choose what you want to do. And I know the leading argument is it brings money into local communities and to poor families, but does exploiting animals and/ or people justify it? At the end of the day, I don’t think so. Would I recommend doing this tour? Probably not.

Next stop: Belem.