The Amazon River continues its course through the jungle, but civilization is starting to show its clear signs. More and more towns are appearing on the riverbank and they increase in size. In between the towns the riverbank is inhabited by smaller communities and farms. The jungle wilderness is replaced by human development, meter by meter, as we slowly drift down the increasingly large Amazon River.
Beautiful wooden passenger ships are pushing their way upstream with noisy engines. Huge barges with construction materials and oil are fighting their way upstream. The current is softer close to the riverbank, so most vessels heading upstream are transiting here, to avoid fighting against the stronger current in the middle of the river. A collision with a 100m bulk-carrying barge could be seriously dangerous for us and prove highly risky for the barge if he had to make some emergency maneuvers to avoid a collision with our raft. So we keep away from the shore and try to float in the middle of the river. If the wind and current pushes us close to the shore, we have to start the engine and escape this “highway” of ship traffic, heading back into the middle of the river where we “belong”.
We are approaching Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon Basin with more than 2 mio. inhabitants. Manaus is road connected to Venezuela with a modern paved road and somewhat connected to the rest of Brazil via the Transamazonian highway, a gravel road with some paving, notorious for muddy sections throughout the rain season. Manaus has an international airport, sprawling urbanization, an international opera festival, a huge port that accommodates ocean going containerships, historical buildings from the rubber-boom era, fiber optic internet connection and the usual social despair common to all large cities. A new stadium that will host World Cup matches in a couple of months, England vs. Italy, for an example. Manaus is the largest city in the Amazon Basin, a gateway to civilization. Green, insect-infested jungle replaced by gray concrete and noisy streets. Nature replaced by humans.
We pass the city of Manacapuru, which is the first city that is road-connected with Manaus. It was a strange sight to see cars and buses transiting through the jungle: since we started the adventure, riverboats have been the only connection between towns. Now, we are connected to a road that leads to another road and, eventually, connects the entire continent of South America. Pathetically, it hurt me. We had been living on and with The River for months, and now it felt like The River was triumphed: The road represented an alternative form of transport, rendering The River less important.
The high-rise buildings are visible from far away. A large suspension bridge spans across the Negro River as a monument to human development in the middle of the jungle wilderness. Large ships are anchored in front of the city and industrial complexes are occupying the riverfront. It is a stark contrast to the eternal sections of nature that we have seen for the last couple of months. We push our raft upstream across the Negro River and get closer to the busy riverfront of Manaus. Zig-zagging in front of heavy oil-barges and a myriad of ships in all sizes. A long line of ships are anchoring to a huge concrete wall in what appears to be the center of Manaus. We follow suit and park our raft on the concrete wall, while local eyes are staring curiously, dubiously, at our unconventional vessel. Cargo boats staffed by overweight, male, macho Brazilians are the first to break the conversation. Within long we are known by most people in “the port”. The vessels around us are of varying quality: Beautiful, large wooden river-boats in 2 or 3 levels. Older vessels that function as a permanent, moveable home for a family. One boat struck me as particularly peculiar: an old rusty engine mounted on 3 floating refrigerators. Guess that works. The concrete wall also accommodates the less privileged inhabitants of Manaus: The homeless, the hungry, the junkies and the drunks. The raft had arrived, from wild jungle to concrete jungle.
It was an intense feeling: arriving in Manaus. An ambiguous feeling. A mental storm was processing in my head. We had all decided to stop the adventure here in Manaus for reasons I will explain later. 4 months of memories were exploding in my head as my heart couldn’t decide what to feel. A murky mixture of happiness and melancholy seemed to be the end-result as I sat there on our raft and drank a beer, staring into vacuum.
More than anything, I felt humble. Humble of nature and, mostly, humble of life. And grateful for the option to have ventured through Amazonia on our own homemade bamboo raft. So I smiled and waited for the emotional storm to gain momentum and hit me. It surely did.