When I got to the post office at 7:10 there was already a queue, even though it had only been open for 10 minutes. That was probably because people were eager to get their posting done before the work day began. As for me, I figured that the French postal system might be better than the Brazilian one – fingers crossed. It started pouring it down while I was inside, so I took shelter, speaking to a Brazilian boat guy. He seemed to be an official sign post, as he asked where people were going (either the village directly across and onwards via a 6-7km dirt road, or directly to Oiapoque) and then pointed either left or right. The standard fare was €5 up river to Oiapoque, but he warned me that people might try to charge more for the bike. That didn’t end up being the case, thanks to patience.
There are plenty of small boats ferrying people back and forth and so I just waited for one to be about to leave before approaching it. That way, the boatman was getting €5 more than he’d figured for no more work. When I’d come down the day before I’d been approached by a guy who had wanted €25, obviously figuring that, as I was covered in dirt and smelt pretty terribly, I was rich. Intriguing logic.
We headed down river and around a bend until the town, sprawled along the bank, came into view. The Lonely Planet talks about aggressive money changers, but I only met a single guy at the dock, who offered me the standard of about 10% lower than bank rate, but the lovely thing was that, unlike any other country, I had no need to sell my few euros. I’m sure they’ll come in handy at some stage in the future.
Being by a river hadn’t had the hoped-for effect on Oiapoque of flattening it, as hills sharply seemed to kick up everywhere. I took a photo at the monument which claims it marks the start of Brazil, visited a cash machine and went to talk to the Federal Police, who in Brazil act as the immigration authority. I was met by a security guard and a lady who asked me if I was coming or going. She was just dressed normally, but seemed to be in charge of taking the passports to the police inside the building. I said I was coming and wanted 90 days, the maximum I’m allowed in one stay. She went inside, and about 10 minutes later came out with a passport and a stamp valid until the 12th of March. As far as I understand it, I am allowed to extend that for up to another 90 days (87 in my case having already been here 3 days) by talking to the Federales and paying a fee. We’ll see how that goes.
I picked up a bunch of bananas and strapped the bag to the back of my bike before heading out. I had read about the road ahead, and knew it would be a challenge, but matters were not helped by me being an idiot. I have 4 different GPS maps on my GPS, in the hope that they should complement each other. Yet when I followed what the official Garmin map was claiming would be the road out of town, I went up and down a few very short sharp hills, where the only traffic was a couple of cars and a bin man. It wasn’t until the houses started to vanish, and it really kicked up that I asked someone, who of course told me that I was meant to go the other way at the Federales. I u-turned, got funny looks from people who clearly thought I was loopy and started out of town.
Going past a petrol station, I was tempted to get a lift, but ended up figuring I would start and see how the road was. About 5km along, I remembered that Curtis had told me I needed to make sure I had received a form from the police, and so turned around, planning to ask about it. It wasn’t proving a very successful attempt to leave town. I doubled back a few km before deciding that no-one else had received theirs (there had been 3 other guys getting stamped at the same time as me) and that I’d see how things go.
There were 53km of paved, seriously-undulating road before I arrived at the start of the dirt. I did that with a bit of effort, but as there was a young kid with his brother riding along with me, I could not allow myself to be seen to be struggling. Granted, they got off and pushed up hills, but apparently they did the 90 minute 21km ride from town to home pretty frequently. I parted ways with them at a police checkpoint, where the police were much more interested in talking amongst themselves than stopping any traffic. I stopped to point out my lack of form, and they assured me that the stamp alone would be OK. That will be my excuse when someone is trying to give me a $100 fine for not having it.
I slowly made my way through an area where the road acted as a border. To the east of the road were a reservation and frequent signs forbidding entrance. On the other side were the normal signs about speeding, wearing a safety belt and my favourite one that warned against overtaking – or ultrapasse in Portuguese. There was definitely less traffic than I had been expecting, and even when I stopped for about an hour to have a nap and get out of the midday sun under a shelter, barely anything went past. Nearly all the pickup trucks that did go past, my normal way of getting a ride, were completely packed.
As I knew would happen, the pavement stopped and 110km of dirt began. There had been the odd downpour, but the road was fairly well packed, meaning it was better than I had expected. The 20% hills that I had been riding up and down on the previous 53km, showed no sign of abating, and my main fear was that my front tyre – which had been my rear tyre until I realised the sidewall was going on it and so put Seth’s tyre-boot in and flipped it to the front – would explode at some stage with all the impact. I went through a few small indigenous communities, but no-one replied to my greetings, or waves.
It was getting dark, and in my 3.5 hours I had gone just short of 35km through the jungle, when I saw a man walking along. My GPS claimed that there was a community just ahead, so I slowed down even further and said hello to him. His name was Felipe and he lived in the community just ahead. I got off my bike and we walked the 5 minutes to get there together, chatting away. Or to be precise, I was understanding a little of what he was trying to say and making sure I understood the questions, but was not really able to understand most of his responses.
In town, he showed me to a covered meeting area where I would be able to put my hammock. When I mentioned food he showed me to the shop in town. The shelves had 4 tins of sardines, one of sausages, some coffee, powdered milk and then two different types of biscuits. My dinner ended up being, a 190g can of sausages and a small pack of 4 biscuits – everything a cyclist could possibly need after countless 20% climbs.
Felipe vanished, and I started chatting with the owner of the store. I asked what the indigenous language was called, and was told it was Creole. How do you say thank you in this indigenous Brazilian language? Merci. Yes, they speak French. After a couple of minutes, the conversation ended and it became a little awkward. I was about to head back to my bike when Felipe turned up in a pair of shorts and said he was going for a bath. Perfect. I asked him to wait, and was back inside two minutes ready to clean up. I don’t know why, but for some reason I had the idea of a Japanese hot spring in my mind. It wasn’t quite that. We went to where the nearby river touched the village, stripped down to our boxers and waded in. Such a glorious feeling, cleanliness.
I left in the rain, with some biscuits for breakfast. I knew there was a restaurant about 20km further along, and made it there by 9am. Before trying to order, I went into the shower area and washed off my legs and cleaned my water bottles up. Then I asked what they had to eat. The answer? Nothing. Nothing to eat until 10am. I wasn’t going to wait, so I headed to the next restaurant, which was only 10km along. By 10:30, I was there and was welcomed much more warmly. I asked about food and was told that it would be ready in about 30 minutes. I was given a coffee, a chunk of bread and butter and was told to relax. When 45 minutes later the food was going to be “ready in 20-30 minutes”, I bought some biscuits and thanked them for the help. It was overcast, which was much nicer to ride in than the baking sun that had been out in force earlier.
The man in the 2nd restaurant told me that the next restaurant was in 30k, so I pushed on through the constant hills (you can see the profile below, just remember that I’ve filtered it so it loads faster so there are probably 3-4x as many ups and downs) and got there 3 hours later. I asked some people washing their motorbike with a pressure washer about a restaurant, and was told it was closed, but there was definitely one in another 30km. I borrowed their pressure washer to clean the worst bits off my bike, and headed out. I had really had my heart set on getting to eat there, so it was a bit of a challenge, but after munching down on biscuits and peanut butter, I got going again.
After 20 of the 30km, the pavement came back, and though it was still hilly, the hills were more rolling and I could bomb down them. The only problem was that my Rohloff shifter is not that great in the rain, and so I was finding it a challenge to change gear. A pair of gloves would help, but thankfully the rain meant that I didn’t need my hat and used that as a temporary measure. I found the restaurant and ordered a plate of food, but the service was not very warm, so I decided that, even though it was almost dark, I’d push on rather than ask about staying there.
20km further down the road it was dark, I was getting tired and it was hammering it down. Then on the right, a light. I hadn’t seen much by the way of signs of housing in the gloom of the evening and so this was perfect. I slowed down and stopped at the house. I rang my bell and explained myself in broken Portuguese (my name’s Dominic, I’m from England, I’m riding my bike and I’m sleepy, can I possibly put my hammock somewhere?) The owner, Christian, was cooking under a separate shelter and said that of course I could. I leant my bike against a tree and was almost immediately given a cup of coffee. I walked over to Christian, who was cooking some kind of potato for dinner, which I think was called mantioca, and gave me a plate full, even though I wasn’t too hungry. We sat at the table and I was introduced to the family. They took down the hammock and said I could put mine there. I couldn’t really understand much of what was said, so amused them by making funny faces at their young son.
It was raining when I woke up around 6am, but with Christian’s family being active I decided to get up too. I was offered tapioca pancakes and coffee for breakfast, as we chatted for a while. I was going to go, when 3 guys turned up on motorbikes and then I was invited over to see them making guarapo, the sugar cane juice that I’d drunk so much of in Cuba. It was interesting that in Cuba there had been the machinery everywhere to make it, while here it took 4 guys and a fair amount of work to do the same job. I don’t really think of rural Brazil as being less developed than Cuba in any way, but there’s one!
From there I set off on my way to the next town, Calçoene. It was a bit off the main road, so I just stopped at the petrol station there to rest and try to check my email. I’d been sat round trying to use my Kindle internet in vain for a while, when the owner of the petrol station came over to talk. He and his son, Leonardo, were doing some work and wanted to talk. It turned out Leonardo spoke English well and we chatted until it was time for lunch, when I was invited for a plate of rice and fish. By the time I left, we had swapped contact information and Leo told me that if I passed through his town of Natal, I had a place to stay. They even offered me a ride to Macapá as they’d be going the next day, but I was enjoying the empty roads.
I was riding along, looking at my GPS and paying no attention, when I veered a little too far right and bounced into the shoulder. It was filled with gravel and I lost balance and landed on my left knee. I had torn a hole in that part of my trousers a couple of days earlier getting dressed in the hammock, and now it was vastly bigger. Such an idiotic thing to do. I stopped at a place that advertised cheese and after buying some, asked if the lady had a needle and thread as I had a hole to patch up. She disappeared and I went to sit down outside. She came and passed it to me, I thanked her and said now it was time to learn how to sew! She took pity on me and sewed the hole up herself. It will work as a temporary fix until someone with a sewing machine does a stronger, better job. The trousers have been doing a good job, considering how much wear they get, and it is a shame to damage them like that.
As the sun was going down I was not sure where I would stay and then, as with the night before, I saw a light off to the side of the road. I went through a gate and followed the track to a farmhouse, where a barking dog greeted me. I rang my bell and Raimondo, a man in his late 50s came out. I explained what I was doing and he told me that of course I could stay. We chatted a little, and then watched TV over a plate of eggs that he prepared for us. It’s fun to see just how well this strategy of finding accommodation works, as recently I’ve been relying on policemen and fire stations to help, when asking locals works just as well.
I was up with the sun and, after a coffee and saying my thanks to Raimondo, was back on the road. I made decent progress until I needed to stop for water at a shop. I bought a pack of biscuits and was asked what I was up to by Adriana, the daughter of the owner. I explained and was invited to sit down. I was then given a cup of coffee, a bowl of instant noodles and we brokenly chatted away. After the noodles, I stood up to wash the bowls in the nearby sink and that went down very well. I was given another drink, a large piece of watermelon and even told that if I stayed longer I could have lunch. I was not wanting to wait another hour, so thanked them and hit the road. That was the 6th free meal in a row that I had been given! Brazilians might not say much when you are on the bike, but as soon as you stop, they are fabulously generous.
I made it to the next town of Tartargalzinho, or small turtle, where I almost stopped for lunch at a barbeque place, but instead decided to go to a supermarket. I found the nicest looking one in town and bought some biscuits and jam to go with some cheese I still had from the previous afternoon. They had a covered area in front of the shop, as well as a bike rack, and so I sat around eating. A lady asked me if I had dollars to sell, but I told her that I didn’t as I was from England and only had Reals. 10 minutes later, her husband came out with a tour guide to London in Portuguese. They had apparently been there on a visit. How random. I looked at it and thanked them.
When I was about to leave, I went in to say thank you and was introduced to Roberto, their son, who had done a Masters in Finance in Glasgow. That was why they had been to the UK, they had gone to visit the country with him. I asked him if there was a place with internet around, as my Kindle had been having issues getting online, and he said that he had wi-fi there and that I was more than welcome to use it. Woohoo! I sat down and we chatted away while I checked my email and got some things done on-line.
There was only one small community after Tzinho, and then it was 120km to Porto Grande, my probable destination for the next day. I decided I would ride and see what happened. About 15km after Tzinho, the sun had gone down and I saw a light on a ranch house and went to the gate, I rang my bell and said BOA NOITE, but although I know there was someone in, they didn’t come out. I decided that there would probably be a place just a bit further on and so kept going.
It was about 50km of riding by the light of the full moon along by the time I stopped. There had been no houses and I was getting a bit tired. There was a road turning off somewhere, and a few places I figured I could sleep. I was excited about putting my hammock up on the back of an advertising board, but it was a bit too flimsy.I then spotted a tree next to a barbed wire fence, but that didn’t work out too well. The fence pole was a little too short, but ignoring that I still tried to put my hammock up. That was a terrible idea, as the leaves of the tree were full of biting ants that covered my bare arm. I felt a horrible burning pain before quickly killing them all. I put my jacket on to take the hammock down and went with the much more sensible option of putting the hammock up in the plantation that I was next to. The trees were at a pretty much perfect distance apart and after a bit of faffing around, I was asleep.
Having ridden so late the night before, what had looked like a long day when I’d been looking at the map ended up being much more reasonable. I had been lucky with a lack of rain overnight and before I knew it, the nice pavement ran out. It was nice, because it had been re-paved fairly recently, but when I made it to the River Araguari, that stopped. There was a sign pointing to a diversion, but I decided to keep going on the old road. That was a horrible idea. I got more mud flung on my bike in two 400m stretches than I had in the 110km up by the border. I had to get off and push, and often shake the bike to try to unclog the tyres, which were getting coated.
Wilson, my host in Macapá, had put me in touch with a family friend in Porto Grande and said I would be able to stay there. The last 20-30km of the ride there was painful, and I had to stand up for good parts. The humidity and lack of shower opportunities meant I had developed saddle sores for the first time in a while. They are very uncomfortable to ride on. I stopped at a petrol station about 5km before Porto Grande to get some water, and was met by Leo’s father, who was having his lunch. He welcomed me as The Englishman and arranged for me to get a plate of food as well as ice-cold water. I was pointed to a shower, and informed that I could of course stay as long as I wanted. I thanked them and got cleaned up, enjoying my first real shower since Cayenne, a week earlier.
I got caught up on some studying and waited for the afternoon heat to die down, before continuing on to Porto Grande, where Paulo came to find me and guide me to his house. There I met his mum, Socorro, his dad, Jelson, and his sister Gloria. Socorro in particular was so excited to have a visitor, an incredibly welcoming lady, and made sure that I ate lots of the cake she had baked that afternoon. I had studied a bit of Portuguese, but it was still a challenge. I am looking forward to focused study when I get the time. Even with the language barrier, I managed to act out my need to go and visit a chemist where I picked up some cream that is used for babies with nappy rash, a great help for a cyclist in pain. That is now part of my first-aid kit.
After chatting, and being introduced to some friends, Paulo took me on a tour of town. I got to see a huge pineapple statue in the centre of town – because of the pineapple festival that is celebrated there – and eat ice-cream made from açai, an important local crop.
After a quick breakfast, I headed out of Porto Grande on my way to Macapá. The cream I had bought the day before helped remove the discomfort that had been there the day before, and it was helped even more with a rare tailwind. The road looked pretty similar, with large numbers of plantations, with the trees grown to make paper, lining the way. Logging trucks with 34 wheels bombed past, but the shoulder was generally in good condition, other than when the bushes on the side were encroaching, so it was OK.
I made it to Macapá where Wilson was waiting for me and showed me to his house, where I met his wife, Tania, his father-in-law, Antonio, and their son, Renan. I am not sure how long I will be here, but it will be at least until after Christmas. It will give me time to work on my Portuguese, and Wilson is eager to practice his English too. As you can see on the map, Macapá is at the mouth of the Amazon, and also on the equator. From here, I have to cross the Amazon somehow and then I am not sure where the road will take me.
How Brazilians make guarapo