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On the boat to São Gabriel da Cachoeira

Our masterstudents are in the field! They are sending in interesting posts from all over the globe, both to the ‘Vamos bien’ blog and to StandplaatsWereld – where we copy the ones posted on ‘Vamos bien’. See the whole series at ‘Fieldwork 2013’. 

By Jorge Alves     The boat trip from Manaus to São Gabriel da Cachoeira took 29 hours, three more than expected. I will tell you what happened. At about midnight, I was sleeping on the floor of the deck of the boat. It was a bit cold because this boat – Taylor – is one of the fastest of the Tanaka Navegações and if you are at the front you do not get any protection from the wind. However, the night views along with the experience of falling asleep while looking at the starred sky in the Amazon make it totally worth it.  So, suddenly, I awoke to a huge noise as I wasflipped over and looked up trying to understand what just had happened. I was alone outside for a few moments but then a man came from the inside and said “the boat hit a rock!”.

I stood up and looked inside, now that the lights were on, and mostly I saw people looking at one another, trying to comprehend what had happened. I think I didn’t panic because no one else did. I felt that it would have been strange to panic alone. Inside, some people were putting on (or trying to put on) the life vests, others were holding their arms or legs, but surprisingly, everybody was extremely calm. No yelling, no crying, just a homogenous group of sleepy faces acting like nothing much had happened. Well, I must say that in few moments I was feeling the same way: ‘ok, the boat just hit a rock, We’re either stuck or sinking. No big deal!’.

Then, one of the members of the crew – who by the way were more silent than the passengers – jumped out to the water and it was by then that we got to know what had really happened: the water was on his knees, the boat had hit a sand bank and it got stuck there. Well, that was much better that hitting a rock but we were still not going anywhere unless we could free the boat to the deeper waters. The Rio Negro is large, very wide (up to 24 kilometers), 1700 kilometers long, and from the air this region looks like a huge puzzle of green and black pieces. The Rio Negro basin is the largest in the world of black waters and runs through four different countries: Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana.

After two hours of failed attempts trying to have the boat free itself with the power of its engines, someone said: “the only way is if all the men jump into the water and push”. Well, I wasn´t thrilled with the idea, especially because a few moments before some men were telling stories of alligators in those waters and debating who had seen or caught the biggest one. You know how it is. But, they also said that the alternative would be to wait 12 hours for another boat. So, the men jumped into the water. By then all I could think was that I did not want to be the last one to jump. Let me just tell you that I was the only Portuguese person there and I did not want to give them more reasons to (tenderly) tease me. Imagine if I had stayed in the boat. I just thought to myself: ´Come on, we are about 30 men, what are the odds that the alligators will pick me?´.

In the water the jokes continued. Jokes about fishermen, about alligators, about the Portuguese. Some men were swimming (the water was so warm), others were drinking beer. And so we pushed and pushed… and pushed. For a half hour we pushed the boat to one side, we pushed it to the other, until it was in deeper parts of the river and we got it. We jumped in to the boat, proud of ourselves, and in the end it was all a great experience. Everybody was talking to each other or greeting one another as friends usually do. It was like this until the end of the trip. And, in case you’re wondering, the answer is: no, the alligators did not show up!

Regarding the research: after having complied with the needed formalities, I have got the authorization from FOIRN (see list of acronyms below) and FUNAI to conduct fieldwork in a community in the Indigenous Territory of the Alto Waupés. And after conversations with FOIRN and ISA we have agreed that the most suitable community would be Taracuá, which is 220 kms from SGC, about 6 to 48 hours to get there, depending on the type of boat and engine. As it is not possible to buy a ticket, I had to get a ride and I got it already from the health people at DSEI. I am leaving this week. I will let you know more about it as soon as I can. I am very excited with all this!

SGC – São Gabriel da Cachoeira
FOIRN – Federation of the Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro
FUNAI – The Indian Foundation (Government’s organization)
ISA – Instituto Socioambiental (socio-environmental NGO)
DSEI – Distrito Sanitário Especial Indigena (special health for indigenous)


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