When I wrote the previous blog post, I was expecting to leave on the Saturday, but of course that didn’t happen. Wilson & Tania were rather certain that they would keep me kidnapped for a while longer. We did have goodbye drinks on the Friday evening, but as they lasted until 4am, it made it a little hard to get up at 6am. Wilson doesn’t drink much, so spent most of the Saturday feeling very sorry for himself. Then Sunday came and well, I couldn’t leave then, so Monday I finally managed it!
Wilson works in an office near the dock so gave me a ride down. It definitely did feel strange to be leaving, even though I’d been planning it for a while. I was eager to see more of Brazil, but Wilson’s whole family were so warm – truly magical people.
It turned out the boat that I’d be getting would be the one that Martin, the German cycle tourist who briefly passed through Macapá, took to get there from Belém. He arrived 16 hours late on a 24-hour crossing.
The official departure time was 10am, but we didn’t leave port until past 11. We made it about 20 minutes before the motor cut out. I figured that I’d be heading back to Wilson’s place. What followed, was about 90 minutes of someone hitting the motor very hard with a blunt metal object in the hope of getting it going again, and amazingly it got us the whole way to Belém without a further complaint.
The boat crosses the Amazon delta, and we were very rarely far from land. We stopped a few times to make deliveries, which often involved just throwing tied-up plastic bags into the water to be fished up by expectant boys using oars in boats.
For some reason, I had the image of the P&O ferries that we used to take as kids to France. I was wrong. The vessel had 3 main levels, and a bit of space below for cargo. I was on the lower level, because that meant I could stay with my bike. There was an open area with space for apparently about 100 hammocks, although we thankfully only had about 30 people. Even still, hammocks were laying against each other and whenever I laid back in mine, I had some guy’s rather pungent feet pushing against my shoulder. As well as that, there was the motor, which was loud but thankfully being almost constant, it was easy to block out.
The second level had more people, because it was away from the noise of the motor. Quieter but more people kicking me, I think I made the right choice. The top level had a bar, well a few plastic chairs and tables and a guy who sold cans of beer and had some music at what was a rather low volume, especially for Brazil.
I mainly hung out in my hammock reading. I spoke to some of the people around me, and got a fair number of questions about my hammock, but I was pretty content just to laze the time away, knowing I had lots of hard time on the bike ahead of me.
We only arrived 2 hours late to Belém, docking around 2pm, and considering how blistering hot it was, I was fine missing the heat of the day. It’s a city of about 3 million, but I was wanting to hit the road, and so headed out almost immediately. I stopped at a chain of chemists called Big Ben – complete with the tower – to pick up some talcum powder, but then it was onwards.
Stopping to fill my tyre up, I saw a sign saying 2,136km to Brasilia, which made me wonder if people really needed to know that. I would have taken a picture, but my camera gave another intermittent lens error for a while, meaning I couldn’t. I didn’t have a set goal, but there was a town about 60km away that I figured I could get to. I was on target to get there just after sunset, when BANG my front tyre exploded on me. Thankfully, I was only descending a small slope, and so was quickly able to stop the bike without losing control. The tyre had lasted me from LA, a fair 20-25,000km earlier, with minimal flats. The people at Thorn had seen it when I was back in April, and tried to tell me I needed to swap it out. I resisted, saying I figured it had a while left. That was 12,000km ago. Want the longest-lasting tyre? Get Schwalbe Marathon Mondials.
It was exciting swapping it all out as darkness descended on the side of a road which had been pretty horrible leaving Belém. By the time I got it done, it was dark, and so I had 45 minutes more to go to town. I really need to pick up a dynamo-powered light. I’ve barely used the dynohub since getting it installed and a strong light would be glorious.
I made it to the outskirts of Castanhal and my GPS mentioned a fire station about 4km ahead. I saw a n other type of building on my left and decided to check with them. I asked and was told that they used to be able to allow people to stay, but weren’t allowed to any more. I explained how I was just looking for a place to put up a tent and would be gone between 5 and 6. I was given permission to stay as long as I left by 5:30, before any of the higher-ups turned up. I agreed and after cleaning up, jumped in my tent. It was the first time using it since before I got my Hennessy and felt kinda strange!
My second day, was not so exciting. I rode about 100km to the town of Capanema, where there was a fire station. My highlight of the day would have to be trying to buy bananas from a fruit stand, picking the small ones cos they definitely must be fruit, trying to eat one and getting very strange looks from the staff as it turned out it needed cooking, being allowed to change them for the fruit, tying that bag to my bike, riding over a couple of potholes and the bag slipping down and getting trapped between my wheels which turned my lunch into mush. I tried to eat the best parts of what were left over, but it wasn’t much.
The firemen welcomed me in with open arms and we chatted for a while. I asked about an all-you-can-eat barbeque place, but failed, as it ended up being a by-the-plate place. I put my hammock up in the slightly exposed parking area, and worked a little on my laptop. Because I’m clearly an idiot, I didn’t close my bags properly, and woke up to a rather damp laptop sleeve. Thankfully, while it’s not waterproof, it definitely protected my laptop some.
The northern part of the state of Pará, of which Belém is the capital, is very full of cattle ranches, or fazenda. I was lucky in that after leaving Belém I barely saw the sun, because quite frankly it was warm enough without it. My 3rd day in the area was rather similar to the second, except thankfully with fewer exploding bananas. I made steady progress through to lunchtime, when I stopped to avoid the heat of the day, taking a nap outside a church in a small town. I left my bags open and things still wet from my mistake the night before out to dry. It seemed fine to me, as they were right by me and it was a very small town, but a lady still decided to wake me up and warn me of the definite danger.
I started again at 2, and only lasted about 45 minutes before the rain began. There was the entrance to a ranch just as it happened and I was reluctantly waved towards the covered parking area by the wife, and then jumped at by the chained-up dogs. It took 30 minutes for anyone to come and talk to me, and that was Adrian, the father of the family. We spoke for a while, before he vanished and I went back to reading my book. It was still bucketing it down at 5:30 when he returned, and we spoke more. The rain finally eased up at 6pm, and I was considering heading out. But with the sun going down at 6:20, and it being likely to rain again, Adrian told me that I could put my tent up there. It seemed to signal a change in my status from intruder to guest as I was then pointed towards the shower, given some water to drink and even given a plate of food.
As I’d had a short day 3, it meant I had some kilometres to make up on day 4 to stick to the random idea of a plan that I’d come up with. I crossed the border into the next state, Maranhão, at the border to which there was a large petrol station where long-distance buses stopped. The drivers looked like airplane staff dragging their luggage-on-wheels around. While I was hiding in the shade, a couple of families travelling the 1500km from Belém to Fortaleza stopped to talk to me and take my photo. As well as the showers on offer, which I considered, petrol stations are wonderful for getting water. I walk in with an empty 1.5L or 2L bottle and they swap it out for a full one from the freezer. I’ve received ones that are completely frozen, but they’re drinkable in 5 minutes and within 30 there’s no ice left.
In the afternoon I had my normal small-town rest. It was a bit dusty, but I was tired. When I got up again, I saw a bunch of staples on the floor, but nothing seemed wrong. I was a bit peckish, but to say there were minimal facilities on offer would be an exaggeration. Literally the only thing I saw outside of a restaurant was at the other type of petrol station (the one that’s not paved, and has a couple of very worn pumps) and that was a pack of crisps. I got two, and was glad it was only 20km to the next dot on the map.
By the time I made it to the next dot, the whole sky had grown dark and it started to tip it down while I was hiding at a petrol station. I waited for about 15 minutes before deciding to keep going. It was another 45 minutes to the next town of Governador Nunes Freire, where I’d be turning off the next day to take a ferry to São Luis instead of a much longer way via the main highway, so I just rode through the rain, to looks of confusion from the locals.
Maranhão doesn’t have many fire stations. I knew that even though there hadn’t been one since the border, the next one wouldn’t be until Pinheiro the next day, meaning the station has a reach of over 200km. Moral of the story? Don’t have a fire in Maranhão. I instead went to the police station, which was up a badly-cobbled street. When I got there, I was told that the night watchman was there by himself, so I wasn’t allowed to stay. He suggested the Catholic church back towards the main road.
I entered the church, but there were just two ladies inside doing some cleaning. They told me to ask at the house next door. I knocked on the door, and a lady in her 70s answered. I explained the situation, and I she mumbled to me that the father wasn’t there because the place was being renovated, and that I should sit down. She vanished and a younger lady, in her 50s, came to the door. She was even more challenging to understand, and told me of a pousada nearby that I could stay at, for 50 reals ($25). Being way out of my budget, apparently the other option was to find the “casa dos padres”. Unfortunately, neither of the ladies in the house had any idea where that was and told me I should go and find it.
After a stop by the bakery for some bread – a let down as I’d been planning on organising a place to stay with the police taking 5 minutes, then going out for all-you-can-eat barbeque – I set out asking about the casa dos padres. I was pointed towards the church, then back to the main road, down another street, up another, along a muddy road, through a shopping area and more in my hour-long search for the house. People either didn’t know where it was, or tried to tell me to go to the church. Eventually, just as I was getting ready to go and ask at the petrol station, I found a lady on a scooter whose friends knew! Success! Even she had to stop outside someone’s house, clap her hands (it’s the Brazilian way of knocking on a door), and ask for directions.
Thankfully the casa dos padres had a doorbell so I didn’t have to clap, which would have just been strange, and the father answered the door. I explained myself, and he welcomed me in pointing to a shower, and the room that would be mine for the night. Getting cleaned up I found that I had some impressive amount of rips on the back of my shirt – I guess it must have happened when I napped on the dust/staples.
Padre Abas had gone out to visit a family not long after I’d arrived the night before, but we got to speak over a relaxed breakfast. He, and the other padre, explained about life as a father. The two of them work together to cover their parish of about 30 churches, meaning some got only monthly services. I wonder if that’s because of a lack of funding, or a lack of fathers.
The long breakfast meant I wasn’t on the road until past 9am, when it had already warmed up a bit, but thankfully it was still overcast. I met my first guy painting on a bridge, a surprise considering how many bridges I’ve crossed. He was writing the name of a local business, and when he finished with that, he told me he’d write a message praising the Lord that would take him the rest of the day.
The wind had picked up a little – but nothing like as much as it will when I’m closer to Fortaleza – and the 120km I was planning on doing seemed a little excessive. At the top of a small climb, I stopped in a bus stop to eat a goiabada (guava jam) sandwich. There was a little shop nearby where a couple of truck drivers were lunching. I looked at their truck, definitely space for my bike, and walked over to talk to them. I asked them which way they were going, and that I was going to Pinheiro. They said they were just going to a ranch a little further along. Plan failed.
Instead of going back to eat another sandwich and keep going, I decided to sit down and talk to them a bit more. After a while, while chewing a strawberry sweet given to me by the owner’s daughter, the owner asked me if I’d had lunch yet. I explained that well of course I had, couldn’t she see I was currently working on a sweet? One of the customers behind me tried to claim that I meant I was on a diet, but the owner understood that I was just joking and brought out a plate of food for me.
By the end of the meal, it had started to rain, and I guessed that I’d be sat round for a while, when the truck drivers asked me if I was coming. They were heading out, and would happily take me the 10km down the road. I took it as a good opportunity to get out of the worst of the rain, as clouds go at bike speed, meaning you can seem to get stuck in weather forever. It didn’t mean I’d stay dry however, as there was no space up front, so I got to sit with my bike in lashing-it-down rain.
They dropped me off somewhere with a bit of sun, so I kept on keeping on towards the next small town. By the time I got there, I’d nearly eaten all of my bread, but didn’t see a single bakery either side of the river. I stopped outside a restaurant to eat my last sandwich and check my email just before I left, and was offered a drink by a patron.
I arrived in Pinheiro with the same plan as when I was in Governador Nunes Freire, namely, to find a place to sleep quickly and then visit an all-you-can eat buffet place. It ended up being a little faster, but not much. I turned up at the fire station, and asked as normal. The fireman told me that he’d ask his chief, and they came back together a few minutes later. After chatting and asking about my trip for 10 minutes, the chief told me that because they were military firemen I wasn’t allowed to stay. I explained how I’d stayed with firemen in Pará, without any problems, so I couldn’t understand. Looking back, I kinda wish I’d found somewhere else. The chief decided I could stay, as long as I showed them everything I was carrying. I had to go through every single bag, show each item and explain why I had it. It was more than any border crossing, even the notoriously thorough Panama/Colombia one.
After all of that, I was told that I could put my tent up in the bus. Said bus had been abandoned for a while and there was no way I could fit my tent in there. Thankfully, it was possible to hang my hammock down the aisle. I went out to find some food, but none of the all-you-can-eat places seemed to exist, with the buffet places all being pay per kilo. Instead of that, I picked up more bread and hung out eating in the main square.
I got back to the fire station around 9pm, planning to sleep. Oh what a foolish plan. I didn’t sleep until 2am. There was a bar 2-300m away, and being a Saturday night, they were playing their electronic music at full blast. I usually can fall asleep pretty easily, by either reading for a while, or listening to my mp3 player. Neither of them worked. The obnoxiously loud music with strong enough bass that I could feel it. Blah.
A poor night’s sleep meant that even waking up later than normal, I was still tired. I was about 80 windy kilometres from the ferry to São Luis, which was meant to leave at 12. I pushed on with few breaks, and was getting a pretty terrible headache. It was just past 12:30 by the time I got to the port, and the boat was still there. I raced to get a ticket and was the last person on the boat, with the gates closing just behind me.
I spent the 90-minute boat ride napping while laid down across some uncomfortable chairs. By the time we arrived, the sleep and gulping down lots of water meant that my headache had thankfully cleared up. It was about 15km from the port to the house where I’d be staying. The house belongs to Wilson’s sister, who though out of town, had kindly said I could stay. When I arrived I was met by Luzia, the owner of the shop next door, who before giving me the key to the house had me sit down, chat and eat a huge plate of delicious food.