It took 18 hours and four airplane rides, but I made it to Santarém!!! That’s exactly two hours longer than it took me to get to Brazil in the first place (hooray for the efficiency of puddle jumpers!). The trip was without a doubt one of the more arduous (and at times scary) airplane journeys I’ve endured…
Anyways, my travel story begins with Donovan and I heading to the airport at around 5 in the morning for an early flight to Brasilía and then on to Belém (the capital city of my new home state of Para). We arrived in Belém (and caught our first glimpse of the great Amazon River) without incident…but then things started to get a little funky. Our original ticket said we would be flying directly between Belém and Santarém. However, when we looked up our flight information on the video display it said “Remoto Domestico” for the gate…I’ll let that sink in for a moment…
Needless to say, it quickly became clear that we were about to have our first genuine Amazonian adventure. Amidst a heavy rainstorm, we boarded a bus that took us to our plane. Now, I’m not a particularly nervous flyer, but I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t gulp and perspire a bit when I saw that prop plane. I overheard one of the other passengers say, “Meu Deus”…again I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the same thing. Even though our ticket said it was a direct flight to Santarém, when we boarded the plane we soon discovered that we would first be heading to Altamira (???…I still don’t know where that is) and then on to Santarém. After taking off we proceeded to climb into an Amazonian thunderstorm and began weaving around massive storm clouds and bolts of lightening. I have to say, the skill of pilots who operate in the Amazon region is really something to behold.
Anyways, the really exciting/terrifying part of the trip was landing in Altamira. When you travel in this part of the world you don’t exactly fly into inhabited areas…there’s really only rainforest. That said, as we began to get closer to the ground in Altamira all I could see was darkness outside. As we descended lower and lower and seemed to be just above the ground I expected to see lights, but there was only pitch black out my window. It was at this point…for a fleeting moment…that I absolutely (and without embarrassment) thought to myself “OH S*** we’re going to hit the water…so this is how it ends!” Much to my relief, we suddenly BANGED (there’s no other way to describe that landing) into the ground and arrived safely in Altamira. Donovan and I began laughing uncontrollably to one another more out of relief than out of genuine amusement. Our trip from Altamira to Santarém was not nearly as exciting but I can definitely say that I was thoroughly thankful when we finally touched down in my new home city 18 hours after leaving our hotel. All in all I definitely learned one thing from my journey into the Amazon: traveling in this part of the world is more often than not an adventure and you’re better off not worrying about it because pilots here know what their doing.
Initial impression of my new home:
Hospitable. That is without a doubt the most accurate way to describe the people I have met and interacted with over the past few days. Each and every day I can’t help but appreciate the small acts of kindness that various people here have performed for us. Whether it was Jose Luis (a teacher at a local high school in Santarém) opening up his home to us for as long as we needed it (WE JUST GOT AN APARTMENT TODAY…more in next weeks post!!) or Envaildo (one of Jose Luis’ friends) inviting us to a river fish feast (YES…I ATE THE RIVER FISH…AND IT WAS…AMAZING ACTUALLY), I’m constantly forced to think, “why can’t this happen in America more often?” I kid you not, as I sit here writing this post one of the guys I met over the weekend just walked up, chatted with me a bit, gave me his number, and told me if I ever need anything just give him a call (he also invited me to be on his soccer team)…just awesome. People here meet foreigners without suspicion or awkwardness and it is wholeheartedly refreshing to see and experience. I can confidently say that throughout my time here so far this the aspect of Santareno culture that I have enjoyed and appreciated the most. All of those small acts have allowed me to feel increasingly at home in Santarém and more importantly have constantly reminded me that I’m not alone.
In terms of the city itself, don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s nestled in the middle of the jungle…Santarém buzzes with life during the day. The hot spot seems to be along the riverfront, where boats and people are constantly coming and going. You can buy just about any type of food there and its massive market seems like a place where things happen. It was also really cool to discover that just about anywhere in the city you can find trees with fresh fruit hanging on them. During our river fish bbq somebody just walked outside, picked two fresh mangos off a tree, and then handed them to Donovan and I to eat…and boy oh boy were they delicious (also the extremely cheap fresh fruit juices that are sold everywhere in the city…all I can say is wow)! Another amazing aspect of the city is its setting. Surrounded by the Amazon and Tapajos Rivers on three sides, the city has a island feel to it. The rivers are also so large (literally 25 miles wide in some places) that you actually feel like you’re on an ocean at times. However, as much as it is great to experience all these new features of Amazonian life, I have to admit that I was also thrilled to find a new shopping center aptly named “Paraíso” (with air-conditioning and free wi-fi it really does feel like paradise). It’s definitely nice to know that whenever I need to experience a few familiar comforts (or upload photos), a little slice of paradise will always be there in the middle of this most unfamiliar of places.
On the downside, one of the most noticeable things about Santarém is its extremely aged infrastructure, particularly its roads. When I say aged…I mean that some of these roads literally might not have been paved since Percy Fawcett went AWOL in the Amazon (did you click on my link way back when???…of course you didn’t…but I don’t blame you…I wouldn’t have either…). In all seriousness, I have absolutely no idea how cars survive for more than a few months here. Certain roads are borderline impassable in places. I think that explains 1. why there are so many new cars here and 2. why such a large number of people choose to ride motorbikes around the city. Nonetheless, if you’re into roller coasters and don’t get particularly motion sick in cars…Santarém is the place for you!
Inhospitable. Unlike its people, Santarém’s weather is totally and utterly unfriendly to foreigners (and anybody who’s not accustomed to it). Even though I came here knowing that it would be hot, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the heat and humidity of this place. You bake in the equatorial sun during the day and you bake in the still, humid air of your house at night (and simultaneously get eaten alive by mosquitoes). Basically, unless you’re lucky enough to be in an air-conditioned room, you feel like you’re a pot roast sitting in an oven set for 400. Also, much to my displeasure, people here constantly remind me that this is “pleasant” compared to the dry season. My expectation was that I would be arriving during the rainy season, which I obviously thought was going to be the difficult part of the year. However, it turns out that the daily one-hour deluge that Mother Nature delivers actually cools the area off and keeps the heat down. In the months ahead, as it rains less and less, it’s going to get hotter and hotter. HOORAY! I’m not going to lie, as much as I stick out, I’ve begun carrying an umbrella around all day…I don’t care if I look like total coward, I’m not trying to grow lobster claws…at least not this early.
Also, as much as it sucks that there are only cold showers here, I have to say that after a few days ice cold showers actually become a much sought for escape from the constant heat and humidity. This is the only climate I’ve encountered in which you can feel (and literally see) water in the air 24/7. On the bright side, as it gets hotter the Amazon and Tapajos Rivers’ water levels will go down. Why is this great you ask? Well, as Santarém’s two great rivers go down, all of this area’s gorgeous beaches become accessible. In particular, Alter do Chão, or the Caribbean of the Amazon as it’s colloquially known, is going to transform into the place to be as July and August role around. Jealous? You should be. I might just have to purchase a speedo…just to fit in of course ; )
Exciting things in the near future:
1. Donovan and I got invited by one of Jose Luis’ friends to go to his river house next weekend and spend a night eating churrasco, drinking capairinhas, dancing to samba music, and listening to monkeys frolic in the surrounding jungle. Again, we’ve met him once…that’s what you call hospitality.
2. School starts at some point next week. I have 10 hours (lol) of teaching/week that I’m scheduled to do and another 10 hours of school related activities (which could be anything from teaching a “How Americans dance class” to taking classes in Portuguese). Talk about chill. I’m certainly going to have a lot of time for my side project.
3. I signed up for a gym…and my package includes being able to take samba and foro (the major dance in the Northeast of Brazil) lessons from an instructor. I can hardly wait to learn how to get groovy…Brazilian style. Watch out for this gringo at a dance floor near you!
4. Lots of opportunities to play futebol down here (shocking I know). I’m excited to get going at some point this week. Should be a great way to meet people.
5. Photos are up on Facebook…check em out!
P.S I slept in a hammock during my first night in Santarém.
P.S.S One of the teachers at school told me that last week one of his students got bitten by a scorpion on the way to class…marinate on that…