Two young woman from Haiti ride the rapid boat from Iquitos, Peru to Tabatinga, Brazil.
Finding a Boat Becomes a Job
Cliver, my guide, asked, “Did you touch something?”
“No, but something just stung me.”
“I told you not to touch the insects,” Cliver replied.
“I didn’t. The dang thing flew into the vent opening on my shirt and stung me.”
Our night trip into the jungle was just coming to an end after we caught a caiman (small crocodile), found a huge tarantula on a tree and watched bats fly though the moonlit sky. I was ready for bed.
A fellow passenger in the boat said to me, “Cool, you were attacked by a nocturnal night wasp in the Amazonian jungle. It’s not every day you can say that.”
I gave him a look and a silent response, “It’s an experience I would not have minded missing.” Anyone exploring the world will every now and then run the risk of getting stung. The benefits are worth the risk.
A day later back in Iquitos, Peru, I completed arrangements for a boat ride to take me to the triple border where Peru, Brazil and Colombia all meet.
I climbed in the boat and found a seat in the midsection. This leg of the journey I opted for a rapid boat – 16 hours instead of three days in a slow ship.
I felt a sense of urgency to get to Brazil.
Sitting behind me in the next dozen rows was a large group of black people. Aware that Brazil has an African-American population, I assumed they were heading home to Brazil.
I struggled to understand what they were saying.
“Wow, Portuguese is really hard to understand,” I thought to myself. “I didn’t understand one word they said.”
After a small bit of investigation, I discovered they were from Haiti. No wonder I couldn’t understand them. Their language was French Creole. They were going to Brazil to start new lives as refugees from the 2010 earthquake. This also explained their huge smiles. They were filled with hope.
Sixteen hours later, we landed in Tabatinga, Brazil. It was here I learned firsthand the magnitude of finding myself in the middle of a huge wave of Haitians heading for Brazil.
Since 2010, Brazil has been accepting immigrants from Haiti. If they could make it to the border, they were allowed in. No preprocessing in Haiti; they just had to get to Brazil on their own. It was a big surprise when they showed up by the thousands and soon overwhelmed the unprepared Brazilian system.
Brazilian government officials decided the current system wasn’t working, and they put the deadline on border entry as Feb. 2, 2012. Haitians not arriving to the border by then were out of luck. This created a huge wave of Haitians trying to beat the cutoff, making a bad situation even worse.
At the border, the Haitians also overwhelmed the river transportation system. A normal procedure of arriving a day before a boat set sail had now become a nightmare of sorts.
It proved to be daunting just to find someone who had accurate information about when the next boat was supposed to arrive or when a boat was scheduled to leave for Manaus.
“You have to go to the port and ask the boat captains when they are selling tickets,” hostel managers said.
I found myself stranded at the border with minimal information. The first night I spent in a hostel room that was unfit for habitation. The door was missing a bottom panel, the cement walls and floor were unpainted and the shared room felt like a prison cell. Plus, the price was inflated because of the surge of Haitians. The rumor in town was 20,000 were waiting to be processed. This humanitarian crisis resulted in some people exploiting the situation, like hostel managers cramming people into rooms.
“You will have to wait at least a week for a boat,” the hostel manager said. “Would you like to take a jungle tour while you wait? I’ll give you a special rate.”
The next day, I crossed into Colombia at the border town of Leticia. I found a decent hostel. Travelers are allowed to cross freely back and forth between the two countries without having to stamp in or out.
Here I found a group of travelers stuck at a hostel trying to get deeper into Brazil. At least I was no longer stranded alone.