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Day 7: Manaus to Santarém

Michael Palin - BrazilA flyblown dockside road leads to Santarém's small, squeezed, massively busy ferry port. I pass a big plastic rubbish container with the word CLEAN, partially obscured by the rubbish in front of it, inscribed in large letters on the side. A turkey vulture stands astride it and dogs are nosing around in the overflow. Ahead of me is a muddy track on which are drawn up serried ranks of trucks carrying cargo for the twenty or so ships jostling for position around one single floating jetty. The vehicles are not allowed any closer, so from here everything has to be carried on by hand. Enormous loads are borne by staggering porters. Four dozen litre-bottles of beer on one man's shoulders, two-metre-long gas cylinders on another's. The loads are so heavy that the men must keep running to prevent their knees buckling under the weight.

I dodge out of their way as we wait to find out which ferry is going towards Fordlândia. Eventually we're directed to the São Bartolomeu I, heading up the Tapajós on an eighteen-hour journey to the town of Itaituba with four stops on the way. A hundred people are crammed on the two small decks and twenty-five tonnes of cargo is stacked around them. The only way that so many people can survive an overnight voyage is to take to their hammocks. I've bought one in Santarém and I'm shown the space allotted to me, cheek by jowl with several families and their children.

Despite the apparent chaos the São Bartolomeu leaves dead on time, with people flinging themselves aboard even after we've cast off. One man hurls his bags a full metre before leaping on after them. Getting out onto the river requires extraordinary navigational skills, as the boat has to be reversed from the jammed jetty, inch by meticulous inch. When we have eventually prised ourselves free, two incoming ferries race each other for the vacant space.

The skyline of old Santarém gradually recedes and we run alongside a complex of silos and soaring conveyor belts that dwarf everything else around. This marks the presence of the American grain company Cargill who, in 2003, invested a Ford-like fortune to build a terminal for the produce of their soya plantations in the area. Apart from the forest cover removed for soya production, an upgrading of the road system to transport the soya to the silos at Santarém created a corridor of deforestation and development. The losers in all this were the caboclos, the general term for smallholders and traders . Despite having little legal or financial clout they fought for survival, and still are fighting. Only three months previously a man was shot dead in Itaituba for passing on information about illegal logging. In the last six months of 2011, eight people have been murdered for opposing forest clearance in Amazônia.

There is a tiny bar in the stern of the ship, with cans of beer and booming disco, but this is largely a family boat and most people are already enveloped in their hammocks like so many pupae waiting to hatch out.

Ahead of us the huge skies darken and jagged storm clouds hang over the mouth of the Tapajós. Another mighty river, as wide as a Swiss lake.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 7: Manaus to Santarém
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Santarém
  • Book page no: 40

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