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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

Forgotten road

Wooden bridge on federal road BR-319 in Brazilian Amazon
Large drop hit my forehead, then another one and another and a minute later I had to hide myself in a nearby petrol station. Again. This time though it stopped me from hitchhiking for long hours. It looked like leaving Boa Vista was never going to happen. And it was so easy to get there. I had a lift from the border town of Pacaraima within an hour.

In the capital of Roraima state I stayed for a couple of days hanging out with Natascya, Priscilla and their friends from university. It was a great introduction to the student life in Brazil and it proved, not the first time, that students are quite the same everywhere. They manage to have the best fun with the minimum spending.

I finally found the first lift out of the city early in the morning after all night spent in the station. From all the trucks parked around none of them started the engine during that night, something I was really hoping for. From the town of Mucajaí another short lift brought me to a petrol station and what surprised me there was that they had free showers. Then another station and showers again. Hitching wasn't going too fast but at least I could refresh myself even a few times a day. Very useful in the extreme heat of Amazonian Basin. By the end of the day I ended up in Rorainópolis, where I stayed in a cheap hotel. It was Monday evening and I started hitching in Boa Vista, which was less than three hundred kilometres away, on Sunday afternoon. Very slow.

The next morning I was hiding again, this time under umbrella and not from the rain but from the sun. It was so powerful that I could nearly hear the sizzling sound coming from my skin. After two, maybe even three hours I had a lift for about forty kilometres from a guy who had a restaurant, so at the end I was invited for lunch. From there two more lifts brought me to a village very close to the equator, where I started to look for accommodation as it was getting dark. No hotel, no pousada, nothing. I spotted a palm roof with a massive tractor tyre and a sign saying: Borracharia. A makeshift tyre workshop. I put my matt on the ground and laid down staring at the stars through holes in the roof. I wasn't sure if it was safe to sleep like that, but I ignored my European imagination bringing me images of spiders and snakes. In the middle of the night raindrops sipping through the roof woke me up, but I ignored them as well, I was wrecked.

The next day welcomed me with the same heat and the same long hours at the roadside. The first lift was around noon on the back of a pickup with workers going to one fazenda* only a few miles up the road. I ended up in the middle of nowhere, but I didn't care, at least I had some shadow there and I could observe colourful parrots flying above my head. Luckily or not I couldn't enjoy this view for too long, one four by four stopped for me. The driver pulled the window down a bit with a mix of fear and curiosity.
'What are you doing here?'
'Just travelling.'
'Where are you from?'
'From Poland.'
'Ah, Solidarność**, get in! I'll get you closer to Posto Fiscal.'
I quickly jumped in wondering what Posto Fiscal was. I couldn't really get it as my Portuguese was too bad. When we arrived I realised it was some kind of a checkpoint, something like Venezuelan Alcabala, but more organised, basically like everything in Brazil.

This place was the last bit of civilisation for miles. I was at the entrance to Yanomami Indian Reserve that was on the border of Roraima and Amazonas states. The traffic was scarce, where all the trucks I saw earlier disappeared? But surprisingly finding a lift was a question of minutes and the blue old truck that stopped was going all the way to Presidente Figuereido, that was so close to Manaus.

When we entered the reserve I stuck my head to the window excited like a kid. Most of the time it looked like the jungle I saw in Venezuela, but the fact I was finally in Amazonia was bringing me a thrill. At this point all the roadworks on the federal road BR-174 were behind us. We were floating smoothly on the brand new tarmac and we got to Presidente Figuereido late in the afternoon, maybe thirty minutes before the sunset. I rushed for the outskirts and it was a good idea. Soon I was sitting in a car on the way to Manaus. The car had a strong scent of weed. I hope he's not too stoned I thought, but the young guy behind the wheel was driving safely through beautiful hilly areas with snow white rocks. It looked like a sandstone, but I wasn't too sure as it was getting dark.

I still remember how I imagined Manaus when I was a kid. Every time I saw this name in an atlas, I had a view of Indian village with houses on stilts and fishermen in their logboats. In reality it was a city with skyscrapers and more than two million inhabitants. The city centre had many old buildings made in the late nineteen century during the rubber boom. It was a picturesque place. Unfortunately it didn't smell that nice. After many days without any rain it stank with piss and rot.

Out of dozens of couch request I sent to members in Manaus I had just one negative reply. I went to a hostel and after refreshing myself I sat in a living room hoping to meet some adventurous people. All the faces were hidden behind the screens of laptops, tablets and phones. Oh yeah, maybe I should check what's going on in the world as well. But after a while I felt like I need to talk to someone. Every time I asked I had a quick answer, maybe even a mere smile and that was it. I grabbed a beer from the fridge and started to drink alone. One tall guy with curly blond hair came back from town and when he saw me with a pint he got a beer, came to me and said: 'fucking hell, someone is finally drinking here. It was so fucking boring.'

Boat on River Amazon in Manaus
Scott was from South Africa on his trip around Brazil and neighbouring countries and we got on well from the very beginning. Over a few more pints I realised how hostel life changed since I visited one the first time. Those days if there was one computer with very slow connection it was really good. When people needed information they were asking others. Nowadays they ask as well but in the cyber space. Luckily not every one was addicted to their electronic toys. Over the next few days the crowd changed completely and we all had some fun. One night we went to the famous Teatro Amazonas to see a modern dance show and later ended up in the traditional samba club dancing samba all night, well at least trying to dance it.

Every time someone asked me what was my next destination all I could say was: I don't know. I was considering two directions: east towards Belem and south to Porto Velho. Both of them didn't seem easy for a hitchhiker. To go east I would have to hitch a boat over the Amazon and BR-319, the only road connecting Manaus with Porto Velho and the rest of the country, according to locals was impassable.

Every day I was hanging out in the port trying to get through and meet captains of cargo and passenger boats. With my terrible Portuguese I wasn't too successful. Meanwhile I'd found out that BR-319 together with Transamazonica was built by the military regime in 1970's to colonise Amazonia and consolidate Brazilian territory. Many settlers arrived tempted by the free land. But after years of no maintenance, with deteriorating asphalt the jungle started to claim it back. Many settlers abandoned their property and moved out.

In late eighties the public bus company closed down the last connection between Manaus and Porto Velho, the road was basically abandoned. In 2008 Lula's government started the repaving program. After four years around five hundred out of nearly nine hundred kilometres was in pretty good condition, but the rest in the middle was still in pieces and there was no certainty if it was ever going to be changed. The National Institute of Amazon Studies stopped the process fearing uncontrolled deforestation, something that happened in the past. I had no idea if it was possible to hitch through that road. I decided to find out.

I went to the ferry terminal in the eastern part of the city and started to ask drivers waiting for the embarkment. One of the cars I approached was all covered in stickers saying something like: vote for me and showing the face of a candidate for the local elections. I looked closer and noticed that the candidate was actually a woman sitting behind the wheel next to another lady. When I explained them who I was and what I was doing they agreed to take me once I get to the other side. When cars started to embark I walked on with other people thinking that it was a foot passenger ferry as well.
'Hey where is your car?' one guy asked me.
'Em, am, I don't know.' I answered.
'He's with us!' the candidate saved me. Phew I went through somehow.

After short but intense shower the boat left the northern bank where the river was black and soon entered the tributary with coffee and milk like water. The meeting of Rio Negro and Solimões. Most of the time we were accompanied by Amazonian dolphins swimming around. The setting sun was reflecting in the Amazon and dolphins were cutting the red surface of the water with their pink fins. Magic moment.

The first few miles of the road were terrible, but with the roadworks on it would change soon. On the way to Careiro I found out that my driver was a prefect of the municipality and it was almost the end of the campaign. She was hoping for re-election in October vote. When we arrived she invited me to her committee and home of her coworker. There were flags and fliers everywhere, all red ones with a white star and two letters: PT. She was from Partido dos Trabalhadores - Brazilian Workers Party.

In the office there was an atmosphere of hard work and engagement. One person was cooking, other printing something, constant dispute and movement. Young volunteers were painting flags as most of the materials for the campaign were prepared at the spot. Wilson who's house was changed into the committee was very curious about my travels and the country I came from. He was pretty much taking care of me while others were working. We had very interesting conversation in a mix of English, Spanish and Portuguese. At some point he even compared the former president of Brazil Lula da Silva to Lech Wałęsa, former Polish president. I wasn't sure if it was a good comparison as they were from the opposite sides of the political scene. But I agreed that they both radically changed their countries.

'Do you have a hammock?' Wilson asked me.
'Yeah I have.'
'You can sleep here, there's no need to pay for a hotel. Many volunteers stay here overnight as well.'
So I was sorted for the night and later met some of the volunteers who were really enthusiastic about PT, its socialist ideas and all the changes it triggered in Brazil. Jack, who was working in Manaus, was spending all his free time in Careiro helping in the committee. We all went to bed very late that night chatting before for hours and hours about Poland and Europe, Brazil and South America and pictures of my snowy home town were the hit of the night.

In the morning I went to see the town which was home to circa thirty thousand people. It looked... well, very Amazonian. Wooden stilt houses, açai palm trees in many backyards and puddles on every street. When I asked about hitchhiking farther south I had contradictory answers. Obviously no one in the committee had ever done this. As a goodbye and good luck gift I received the red PT T-shirt.

After a quick lunch in a local market I started to walk over the bridge and before I got till the end a pickup packed with people stopped for me. Only ten miles, but every lift was precious in that area. Then one of the volunteers took me farther ten miles up the road on his motorbike. The condition of the tarmac was all the time pretty good. The sound of the forest was sometimes amazing. One creature was reminding a chain saw and I was wondering how it looked like. Did I really want to find out? Not too sure.

The next car arrived in half an hour and nearly ran me over while slowing down. Very old man started to explain something but I didn't understand a word. As long as he was going south I was happy. He was driving from one side of the road to the other and it made sense sometimes as there were more and more pot holes, but only sometimes. He was really focused with his nose nearly touching the windscreen. It took me a while to realise he was basically blind. Empty road, forty kilometres per hour, I should survive I hoped.

After an hour of such drive we suddenly heard a terrible noise and the engine stopped. My driver was trying to start it for a while, but soon the smoke from the gear box appeared. We went outside, walked around and noticed another problem, a flat tyre. Shit no spare wheel. The guy sit for a moment saying nothing, then tried with the engine again and it worked. We were driving with the flat tyre for about half an hour until he parked the car in a lay-by in front of somebody's house. Enough.

Paluch hitchhiking in hammock in Amazon village
The next lift, an hour later was with a military truck. Two soldiers were bringing materials to a village called Tupana. The army was building a new bridge there. It wasn't finished yet so all the vehicles were still transported to the other side by a little ferry. The village had a few houses, a school and a place that was a pub, shop and restaurant at the same time, with pool tables on wooden floor. The bar was visited constantly by chickens, cats, dogs and even pigs and one friendly parrot.

When I explained my situation the owner offered me the floor for the night. I had a dinner made of bread and Nutella and went to sleep early between the pool tables. I didn't want to miss all the morning traffic. Just after the sunrise I packed my stuff, drank a free coffee which was a common thing in Brazil and got myself ready for a lift. The day before I made almost seventy kilometres and I started late, not too bad.

After the morning traffic I was hoping for the midday traffic and later for the afternoon traffic. None of that existed. The word traffic was a pure exaggeration. During the whole day there were maybe four or five cars that took the ferry to the other side. In both directions. All of them absolutely full. A few more cars arrived in the village and went back. That was all.

Meanwhile I was walking around, chatting with the owner, reading, watching TV that was on all the time or just sitting and simply staring at the river. In the evening the owner asked me if I wanted to eat dinner. I preferred to get one and leave my supplies for later. I ordered the classical meal made of meat, rice, pasta and beans. When I asked how much it was he just said: 'Nada.' I was sleeping there for free, drinking his coffee for free all day and at the end he didn't want money for the food. Good man.

The next morning I didn't bother to get up early, there was no point. Around midday two lads showed up who wanted to get to Careiro. One of them, mid age with tired eyes started to buy everyone beers, but no one really wanted to talk to him. I didn't understand much, smiling most of the time, so he began to bring me beer by beer. Hours were passing and I started to get really tipsy. Suddenly a truck arrived with many people packed on its open back. I ran quickly to the driver.
'A lift to Igapó Açu?'
'Yeah hop on!'
'Just grab my bag!.
With all the beers in my head I was jumping from happiness.

After the first few miles of relatively good road it started to be so bumpy that half an hour later my arms and legs were all sore. The tarmac looked like spilled black puzzles sometimes disappearing completely. Wooden bridges with broken beams were so creaky that I was holding my breath every time we passed one. The truck was usually going to Igapó Açu on Fridays and that was the only public transport for people living there, together with a Saturday boat going further up the river that some passengers wanted to catch. On the truck, between people there were plenty of suitcases, backpacks, tanks with fuel and even one wooden boat.

'Excuse me, where could I stay for the night?' I asked one of the locals when we arrived.
'You see that green building on the other side of the river? That's a hotel. But you can sleep for free in that blue house over there.'
'Cool, how can I get there?'
'Talk to that man' he showed the a guy packing some stuff to a little boat. The river wasn't very wide and it was meandering slowly between the forest. In the blue house I set up my hammock and started to admire the roof made of a different kind of palm tree that the roofs I saw before. The place was an octagonal structure with almost no walls and it was a kind of community centre. The TV that was there was covered with a thick layer of dust. It must had been broken as everyone was watching the TV in the hotel's restaurant, which was a similar structure but much bigger.

Fried piranha on the plate
Fried piranha
When I woke up the next day other people sleeping next to me were gone. The boat arrived probably very early. The village was built on both sides of the river and there was no bridge. Many little boats were moving around and a bigger ferry made of steel was waiting for vehicles. Around midday a guy who was earlier putting turtle eggs into the sand in a fenced protected area come to me with a plate.
'You must be hungry.' On the plate there was a bit of cassava flour called farinha and a fish with big teeth.
'Piranha?' I asked with disbelief.
'Yes, just piranha.' For them it was just piranha, for me it was holy shit piranha! Delicious stuff by the way.

Most of the day I was lying in my hammock and learning Portuguese from a book I had in my phone. I was jumping out only when I heard the engine of the ferry starting. It meant some vehicle arrived. That day three cars passed, all of them full. In the evening I went to wash my clothes in the river. When I was squatting above the water on a little platform something touched my hand suddenly. Shivers went down my spine but there was nothing to be afraid of. It was a pink Amazonian dolphin curiously checking out what I was doing. Soon all the kids were swimming with two of them.

On Sunday I was either reading, trying to find bell fruits that grew near the restaurant or just lying in my hammock wandering where the hell I was. In the afternoon I decided to swim with the dolphins, but because they didn't know me they didn't come very close. The engine of the ferry started only once, to bring a motorbike.

On Monday, around noon, a Dutch Jeep arrived with plenty of room. When I asked them for a lift I heard: 'We enjoy travelling alone, sorry.' Bollocks. I was going to lay down again when I spotted a white four wheel drive in a distance. It looked like they had space. I went to pack my mess quickly and soon the captain of the ferry started to whistle waving with his hand. I had a lift.

Two friends, both from Porto Velho and working in Manaus, decided to finally check out how this road looked like. And it didn't look well. Black puzzle again, stretches of quite good asphalt or dirt with sticky puddles. And wooden bridges so bad that we had to destroy a part behind us in order to fix another part in front of us. Something like that for a few hundred kilometres. Forgotten highway.

Around midnight we stopped to eat something.
'We have to make a fire, big fire,' one of the guys started to bring some wood from the roadside. 'We have to scare off the animals!'
In a minute we had nice flames on which we cooked mackerel with olives and farinha. The driver went for a nap inside the car, his friend brought a blanket and put it on the road, so I picked my matt and laid down as well. But I couldn't sleep. I was lying on the remnants of asphalt surrounded by the largest forest on earth. Thousands of square miles of impassable jungle. That little piece of tarmac, together with the car reflecting the flames was the only thing connecting me to the world I knew, the world I came from. I imagined how it looked from above. Little bright spot surrounded by eternal darkness, a lonely star in the outskirts of the universe.

We continued soon after and the road was more or less like that for hours. Around noon we passed the first fazendas and BR-319 started to get better. When we arrived in Realidade, a town with many sawmills it was early afternoon. From there our speed was increasing and at the end we drove on a dual carriageway. In the centre of Porto Velho, standing between tall buildings I said goodbye to the lads, put my backpack on, all covered with red dust, switched on my phone and started to look for a wifi. Back to the civilisation.

* Fazenda - Portuguese version of the Spanish word hacienda, meaning a large farm.
** Solidarność (in Polish meaning solidarity) - was a trade union in Poland under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. It was the first trade union in a country under the Soviet influence independent from the Communist Party.