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Up The Amazon Without A Paddle — Or Passport, Or Visa, Or Girlfriend

Jun 25, 2016
Originally published on June 25, 2016 6:48 am

After college, I spent some years wandering on the cheap around South America, ending up teaching English in Rio de Janeiro. Eventually, I left Rio and headed to northeast Brazil meeting up with an old girlfriend who flew in from the U.S. We had plans to continue on to Belem at the mouth of the Amazon and then travel the length of the river to Colombia.

But everything fell apart very quickly. First, while camping with her on a beach, my passport and all my hard-earned cash from Rio were stolen. Next, I came down with hepatitis and was incapacitated for a month.

Finally though, I recovered and my girlfriend and I reached Belem. But there was a telegram (this was pre-Internet, pre-cellphone) waiting there for me from my New Jersey childhood friend Lefty Monahan. Turns out, he was in Rio looking for me and was now jumping on a bus for a 56-hour ride north to meet up with us. But there was no waiting for Lefty. My visa had expired by this point and I was in the country illegally. I had to get out.

My girlfriend and I boarded a banana boat that chugged up the river at a walking pace. There were endless stifling days spent staring out at the brown water and the green ribbon of jungle that bordered it. Meals were not a highlight: beans and rice and meat; rice and beans and meat.

The evenings were worse. We slept in hammocks on the deck, but the boat was so packed that there were people swaying above, below and on either side of us. If you got up during the night, you had to crawl on your stomach to reach the bathroom.

By the time we got to Manaus my girlfriend had had enough and jumped on a plane back to the U.S. Depressed, downhearted and broke, I settled into a $1.50-a-night dive hotel populated by glassy eyed travelers who'd spent too much time in the tropics and Tupamaro guerillas hiding out from Uruguay, some still nursing bullet wounds.

My room was a windowless closet with a small fan and a giant rat that visited most evenings. My roommate, who had the upper bunk, was a baker who got up at 5 a.m. each day, which was just about the time I, in my insomniac state, was falling asleep. As I was recovering from hepatitis and alcohol was prohibited, I couldn't even get drunk.

If only I were a great novelist, I thought, I could really turn this into something using the Amazon River as a metaphor: "A Jersey Boy's Heart of Darkness." The best I could do was to keep telling myself that if I could make it through this I would be able to make it through anything else for the rest of my life.

After two sleepless weeks in Manaus, I really started to lose my grip so I decided to continue up the river and take my chances with the authorities at the border. I left a note for Lefty at the consulate to meet me at the frontier in Leticia, Colombia. After another 10-day banana boat ride, I finally reached the border.

For all my worries about my illegal status the Brazilian immigration official barely glanced at my passport as he stamped me out of the country. The problem arose when I walked across a bridge and tried to enter Colombia. Turns out I needed a tourist card which could only be gotten back across the bridge in Brazil.

Boat loaded with bunches of bananas in Manaus, The Amazon rainforest, Brazil.
DEA / A. COLOMBO / De Agostini/Getty Images

But it was late Friday afternoon and the consular offices were closed for the weekend. There were national elections in Colombia on Monday so the earliest I could get a stamp, provided elections went smoothly and there were no coups, would be Tuesday. And so, I had almost four days to spend in no man's land-- stamped out of Brazil, but not stamped into Colombia. As this was the middle of the Amazon and there was no way out except by plane (and you needed a tourist stamp for that) they let me wander around Leticia without credentials.

I bided my time in town hoping Lefty would show. And one day he did. Sitting in a café nursing a fruit drink, I saw a familiar gangly figure amble past. I ran out and hugged Lefty. I was never so happy so see someone.

After that things improved quickly. There was no coup. I got my tourist card. Lefty and I discovered that if you greased the palms of two rolly polly local pilots you could hitch yourself a ride in a DC3 bound for Bogota from Leticia. The next day we found ourselves in the seatless cargo hold of the old plane lying atop cardboard boxes packed with little plastic bags full of water and tropical fish. There were also cases and cases of Cheese Doodles.

A couple of other travelers joined us on board — An American dental anthropologist carrying plaster molds of the jaws of indigenous tribes and some Colombians who broke out a bottle of rum and passed it around to go along with the Cheese Doodles we had ripped open. It was freezing in that unheated hold of the plane, but skimming just above the lush jungle canopy, it didn't matter in the slightest. I was finally free of Brazil.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And because summer is here, many people will soon be taking a vacation. We hope yours will be everything that you want it to be. But what if it doesn't turn out so well? At least, what happens when travel dreams become travel nightmares?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: We're not talking about the airline lost my luggage or I got a flat on the interstate with two screaming kids in the back seat. We would like to hear about some true travel atrocities. To begin things off, one of our own, Peter Breslow, has a tale of woe from a long-ago trip in Brazil, where he'd been wandering around on the cheap.

PETER BRESLOW, BYLINE: So it's the late '70s, and I'm on a banana boat, chugging up the Amazon with my girlfriend - she's flown down from the States to travel with me. My visa's expired. I'm illegal in the country. I've been robbed of most of my cash and my passport. And I'd spent the last month recovering from hepatitis. So just before we get on the boat, I get a telegram from Lefty Monaghan (ph).

Lefty Monaghan - this is my childhood New Jersey friend. Turns out, he showed up in Rio - I didn't know he was coming - looking for me. And now he's on a 56-hour bus ride north to meet up with us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Lefty) Bres (ph), where are you?

BRESLOW: Lefty always calls me Bres. But I'm gone. I got to get out of the country before they arrest me. So my girlfriend and I get on this banana boat. Yeah, yeah, there were birds, kind of like that. It was literally the banana boat from hell.

The ride was just interminable. The Amazon was in flood. It was just this big, brown body of water. You couldn't even see the far shore. We chugged, chugged, chugged up the river at a - I'm not kidding - a walking pace. And you just spent your days staring blankly over the railing. The meals were beans, rice and meat - meat, rice and beans. But anyway, after about 10 days on the river - that's right, you can cut the sound now - we got to Manaus in the middle of the Amazon. But at this point, my girlfriend had enough. She got on a plane back to the States. She dumped me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRESLOW: And I was broke, so I got a room in the cheapest place in town. And it was a $1.50 a night. And I shared space with glassy-eyed travelers who'd been in the tropics too long and Tupamaro guerrillas from Uruguay. And, I mean, some of these guys still had bullet holes in their legs. And it was an awful insomniatic (ph) time. And I couldn't even get drunk because I was recovering from hepatitis. And you're not allowed to drink. So I just tossed and turned in my bunk every night. And finally, after about 10 days, I just had to get out of there. I could not wait any longer for Lefty.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Lefty) Bres, wait up.

BRESLOW: So I got back on yet another banana boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)

BRESLOW: That's right. Cue the birds. Now cue the putt-putt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

BRESLOW: And, once again, chugged, chugged, chugged up the river, another interminable process of beans, rice and meat - meat, rice and beans. So anyway, I'm going up the river. And I don't know what's going to happen to me when I reach the border. And I finally - I get to the border. And I'm - you know, I'm very nervous. And turns out, the Brazilian authorities there could care less about my passport. They stamp me out. I'm great, you know. And so then I'm going to go get into Colombia. Finally, I'm getting out of Brazil. I cross this little bridge. I go to the crossing station. And the guard says to me - well, where's your tourist card? And I said - what tourist card?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRESLOW: Turns out you needed a tourist card to get into Colombia. You had to get it back over the bridge in Brazil. But the offices were already closed. It was Friday afternoon. And there were going to be presidential elections on Monday. So I was stamped out of Brazil and not stamped into Colombia. And I spent the next four days just kind of in no man's land, wandering between the - Tabatinga, Brazil, and Leticia, Colombia and the whole time hoping that good old Lefty Monaghan was going to show up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Lefty) Hang on, Bres. I'm coming.

BRESLOW: And I'm sitting in a juice bar one of the days. And all of a sudden, there's a familiar, gangly figure walking down the street. And there is Lefty Monaghan. I ran up, gave him a hug. I was never so happy to see anybody in my life. And from there, things improved vastly.

We had found out that you could bribe your way onto an old DC-3 and get a flight out of Leticia to Bogota. So Lefty and I found the two pilots. We met them the next day. And we were going to fly in the cargo hold of the plane.

So the plane is full of these cardboard boxes. And the pilots are just kind of tromping through the boxes to get into the cockpit. I remember they're, like, stepping and crushing the boxes to get in. And it turns out, inside the boxes are these plastic bags full of tropical fish in water. And then in some of the other boxes, there are a bunch of bags of moldy Cheez Doodles.

So anyway, Lefty and I are lying on the boxes. It's a freezing cold cargo hold. There are these two Colombian guys on the plane. They break open the Cheez Doodles, pass around the bottle. The plane takes off. And we just skim along the jungle canopy on our way to Bogota, Colombia. My travel nightmare had ended.

SIMON: That's NPR producer Peter Breslow's travel nightmare. Yours doesn't have to be quite so epic. But we'd love to hear it. Go to WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY at npr.org. Click on contact, and then start your story with the words travel nightmare. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.