A Weekend Up The Amazon

Santarém on a Saturday night was never going to set the world on fire, but it’s a great place to watch the sun go down over the Amazon and Tapajós rivers, strolling along the waterfront, stopping at an open-air bar for a smoothie of açai or acerola berries,. A picture of the Popemouthing silently flashes on the bar TV screen flanked somewhat incongruously by a pile of green coconuts. Outsize swallows swoop in and out of the bougainvillea as families spill out of Mass; a hippy family camped on the pavement sends out a hopeful succession of infant vendors proffering woven bracelets; a woman takes an uninhibited half-hour bath in the river; large brown bats hoover up insects. Cars are parked with the front doors open to allow couples sitting on the wall to enjoy the evening breeze and music on the car radio: nobody is tuned in to the same station. Boys go by on bikes showing off their girlfriends riding sidesaddle on the crossbar, Chevvy pick-up trucks covered in red dust roar into town from up country: youths sweep down like vultures offering to clean them. River traffic is brisk: small boats strung with hammocks ply up and down, tugs push large barges on the way to Manaus or Belém.

It’s already busy by five a.m. on Sunday morning. Breakfast is on: fish barbecued on tiny charcoal burners and tapioca pancakes which feel and taste like a half-soaked loofah. Powerful sweet black coffee. People are already heading for buses to nearby Alter do Chão with its turquoise lagoon and white beaches. The bus radio is on at full volume: the passengers sing along. Big advertisements for Alcoholics Anonymous and prayer meetings vie with commercial advertising. Religion is big: every
500 metres there is an Evangelical, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostal or Baptist church. The bus-driver enters into the Sunday spirit and treats us to a roller-coaster ride with full passenger participation: girls let out excited shrieks of fear as the bus leaps over switchbacks and careers round bends, young men take unexpected advantages. Those unlucky enough to be standing hang on for dear life

Alter do Chao doesn’t disappoint At the water’s edge there’s a string of small tables and chairs. Come about eleven o’clock you can go to any beach bar and choose your fish, later grilled to order. Superchilled beer comes in an insulated container. The Tapajos laps your feet as you eat and a small boat paddles by selling iced coconut milk to bathers.

Later on the day-trippers disperse, whereupon half the village congregates on a central sandbank. Boys play football, women do their washing and shampoo their hair, infants splash in the shallows.
Weathered men in Stetsons get out of 4x4s; graceful girls with perfect figures dandle babies on their hips. Small boys pitch stones into the mango trees. Frogs set up a dusk chorus. There is absolutely no wind and it’s as hot as midday: time for a caipirosca.

R Williams

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