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

A small boat navigates through the narrows of the Amazon River delta near Belem, Brazil.
Wolfgang Kaehler
LightRocket via Getty Images
A small boat navigates through the narrows of the Amazon River delta near Belem, Brazil.

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

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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Two-time Peabody Award-winner Peter Breslow is a senior producer for NPR's newsmagazine Weekend Edition. He has been with the program since 1992. Prior to that, he was a producer for NPR's All Things Considered.